Would you believe me if I told you that the day I found spiritual bliss was the day I almost ended up murdered? Almost hacked into little bits, and by a would be murderer who didn’t know or care what he had done?
Probably not, but that’s because I haven’t told you the equally improbable tale of what led up to it. Like most days, well, most weekend days at any rate, this one started with a highly excitable Madan showing up at my tiny apartment door in the morning.
“Dude!” he burst out, but I can’t really tell you much of what happened next because I had checked out of the conversation. Until he punched me viciously in the shoulder and blurted out that he had found a cool new trek for us to do.
So trekking was this thing we occasionally did, not because Madan and I enjoyed sweating bucketsful while climbing leech-covered, moss-strewn rocks to get a view of a whole lot of nothing, but because we enjoyed the social status that being known as climbers gave us. I mean, apparently, putting up pictures of rolling hills, lush meadows, sparkling streams and all that jazz that was dime a dozen on the Internet was the ticket to social media stardom.
Even so, I hesitated. I had learnt to inversely correlate Madan’s excitement with the actual appeal of the hike.
“I.. have stuff to do.”
“Like washing dirty underwear?”
“Hmm,” I said smugly.
Madan was briefly dumbstruck that his witty jab actually landed, and like all witty jabs that don’t encounter witty repartees, he practically fell over trying to come up with something to say.
“Er. Isn’t that like the best reason ever to actually come on the hike? I mean who actually wants to wash dirty underwear? I for one, pretend that airing dirty laundry in the sun for a few days actually works just as well as throwing it into a washing machine. Chemicals, man. We think they’re doing the cleaning but it’s actually the sun, you know. So yeah. I have scientific reasons for not washing dirty underwear, but you need something you believe in. Ergo, trek.”
If you haven’t figured this out already, Madan talks a lot. I just said:
And so it transpired that a few hours after the aforementioned cosmically significant mostly-monologue, we found ourselves in a really swampy section of a lightly wooded area, faced with a man who looked suspiciously happy.
“Good morning!” said this weirdly ecstatic man.
“Good morning,” we mumbled unenthusiastically. We couldn’t really push past him though because this guy was standing smack in the middle of a one-person wide stretch of hiking trail.
“Isn’t it simply a wonderful day? I’m blessed to be here experiencing the gift of this lovely day!” he beamed. I looked at his mud spattered shorts, moss-stained tee shirt, jiggling belly, thinning hair with what looked like fresh guano cooling the scalp, yellow teeth with bits of black something sticking out (naturally we could see it all because he beamed with all of his teeth sticking out for our perusal); I looked around just to make sure that it wasn’t my cynical eye that was blinding me to a day of astonishing beauty, and I saw rotting tree trunks, unidentifiable animal scat, shrieking birds, clucking insects, a smell that was a cross between cockroach pheromone stew and two year old bottled water, and I told myself that I’d like to have what he was having.
“I’d like to have what you’re having!” Madan naturally piped up.
I’m famous for my inscrutable face but even I cringed at Madan being Madan, but this strange stranger beamed even more if that was possible.
“You’re on the right track!” he pronounced, as if he were handing us the cure to cancer, and bounced off gaily.
There was about thirty seconds of respite before Madan found his voice and exclaimed, with his eyes apparently fixed in rapt attention at an ugly tree trunk that lay in our path.
We walked on a little while longer and suddenly the narrow tree lined path opened up into a grassy valley that seemed to stretch on forever.
It really was a scene out of a dream. Or at least a dream of someone with high production values. Like if somebody from the Game of Thrones crew dreamed of the savannah. Yellow-green stalks of grass that stood twice as tall as I did swayed sensuously to nearly-not-there zephyrs. Their movement was seductively hypnotic, inviting us to detect sinuous patterns that weren’t really there. The very woodsy aroma of grass flowers invaded our nostrils, and two year old bottled water now smelled and sounded like running water from a sparkling stream just off in the distance.
My inscrutable face twitched half a millimetre by way of a smile, but stopped as my mind inevitably flitted over images of Children of the Corn.
Madan though hopped and skipped and flapped his arms and shadow boxed the grass stalks, laughing, shouting, and talking to me about everything from the political situation in North Korea to tales from the workplace.
“Did you know that my boss invited me for a coffee? I would have gone except he was an old, bald guy. And it turned out it was to discuss my promotion.” he laugh-cried as he swatted at a particularly evasive stalk, overbalanced, stumbled, fell and lay there as if it was what he wanted to do all along. I hemmed and hawed most impressively.
“It would be super cool to visit North Korea man. Imagine trying to find a vegan burger and ending up at a nuclear missile silo. Some fool is going to ask you to type in the launch codes, and you end up typing in the amount you’re to pay for that burger. In North Korean dollars. Or whatever their damn currency is. And then you end up blowing up China. And you’re upset you didn’t get your vegan burger.”
“Hmm,” I said impassively.
And so dragged on a couple of hours this way as we walked through the surreal savannah, waving unruly grass stalks out of our faces, until presently a faint keening reached our ears.
Intrigued, we broke off the path. Only a few steps into our new direction, it became clear to us that it was the sound of somebody crying. And judging by the voice - and here I am, the world’s foremost authority in detecting young, nubile women’s crying voices - it was a beautiful young woman, waiting for us white knights to charge in to save her.
“Let’s go! It sounds like a hot chick crying, dude.” said Madan, who I grudgingly concede was probably the second most well-versed man in the art of cry-onomics.
And it was. A beautiful young woman lay crumpled in the fragrant dirt, cocooned in yellow stalks. With her flowery summer dress and tanned complexion, she was almost a part of the landscape. Her long, loose black hair tumbled in waves over her face, and somewhere within that beautiful foliage was the source of the pathetic wail that drew us in. At this point, naturally, images from numerous horror movies and games that hinged on reckless idiots approaching just such a crying woman figure only to have their blood sucked out or something, flashed in my mind. I said nothing, of course.
She looked up. We didn’t die.
“I’m utterly useless,” she wailed.
“I’m ugly,” she blubbered. If we used a micrometre to measure her imperfections, we would fail and need a microscope.
“You’re not!” insisted Madan, in a familiar way, like the girl and he had been soulmates over seven rebirths. My impassive face twitched but internally I told myself that I was taller, fitter and cooler than the chronically sanguine Madan, so ha!
She couldn’t - or didn’t hear him. “I’m fat, “ she sobbed. If we scraped off every bit of fat off her body, we wouldn’t have enough to feed a baby housefly.
“You’re not,” Madan whispered in his best soothing voice, modulating his tone to ooze gentle compassion. I stared stonily. She continued to gibber and sigh, moan and keen about how she had done nothing with her life, and how she was a loser, and how she was responsible for the suffering of so many creatures, and how life was not worth living, and how death was too easy a way out, and how she was immoral, and how she was too uptight, and how she was too thin and how beauty was a curse, and how it was all completely hopeless.
Even Madan gave up on her an hour into it and we walked on leaving her there, slightly bemused.
I guess by now you know where this is going. Even if you don’t, I’ll assume you do and gloss over a bit of what happened next and skip ahead to the part where we found ourselves chased by axe wielding madmen. Right. So before we got to that bit, the savannah ended, and we found ourselves in what appeared to be a desert sandstorm. I couldn’t tell you for sure because I could barely see to the end of my hand. Madan naturally got really excited about a sandstorm in the middle of nowhere and began talking about his boss and politics. I too got excited for a second before thoughts of The Mist snuck in unbidden. Anyway, we made slow progress through the haze, aided by the still visible trail markers, but we kept running into these really insecure men who kept posing us the most inexplicable questions. Short guys would ask us if we thought they weren’t too short. We’d hem and haw and they’d go away as if satisfied by our non-answers. Rich guys with expensive watches would ask us if their watches looked tacky and would again go away satisfied. Even Madan learnt to not respond to this endless procession of questions. Eventually, the sandy fuzz cleared out of the air and we found ourselves at the entrance of a cave. A black vortex loomed like the maws of some dreadful Satanic creature. I hate to sound cliched, but the inevitable gooey monster shots from The Cave popped up in my head.
Madan’s enforced reticence evaporated like the morning dew in the Sahara sun, and he exulted.
“This is it, man. This is it!”
“What is it?”
“Whatever this trek is all about. I’d heard that there is something really unbelievably amazing at the end of the trek and the trail leads to this cave so that amazing thing must be in the cave right?”
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” and he sprinted into the abyss. I crept after, cautiously.
A faint light glimmered off metallic veins in the cave walls, barely illuminating the path. We had gone in far enough that the mouth of the tunnel was a thumbnail sized square of light at our backs, when a bloodcurdling yell rent the air, and there was a loud clink as something big and heavy crashed into the cave wall near my head. I screeched inside thinking of rock falls and death by starvation, but my impassive face stayed impressively stoic. Madan though had apparently fumbled around in the dark for the offending object and found it. A strange tone entered his voice.
“I think it’s a bloody axe.” I had never heard Madan speak softer than this ever before. In fact it was nearly a whispering voice and Madan never whispered, as sure as girls like me better than him.
There was a split second of Roadrunner-like time freeze, before our legs clicked into gear and we ran, ran for our lives. It was one of those things: while clearly the facts were telling us that we were in mortal danger, the dimness of the cave, the isolation, and the whole feeling that we were in communion with serene, inviolable Nature meant that it was hard to muster up the flight response. But another bloodcurdling yell three inches away from my face put paid to that. The form of a tuxedoed man resolved itself in the dimness. We scarpered.
I lost track of time. I sprinted, jogged, ran, walked, crawled and even possibly fell into and half-swam through an underground lake of some sort for what felt like hours. It was only when the stitch in my side burned painfully enough that my fear of being cleaved in two by a flying axe was overcome and I slumped against the cave wall. That was when I realized that Madan was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t want to shout, so I emitted that shout-whisper hybrid that sounds like a hoarse croak. No response. As my eyes adjusted a little better to the dimness, I forgot all about Madan possibly having been murdered by a psychotic killer, as it slowly became clear that I was no longer in a narrow cave path. There was a vague sense of immensity in the direction away from the wall I was resting against, a sense of infinity that was disconcerting. That was when he spoke.
I didn’t say anything but my phlegmatic facade broke and my face transformed itself into a gargoyle-like mask of sheer terror. If you could jump a foot while slumped on the floor, I did that.
“So you’ve come to see me.” the disembodied voice boomed, all bass and honey.
“No.” I told myself in my head, or so I thought.
“That’s what they all say. No!” the voice chuckled. If God had a voice, it would sound like this, I thought completely incongruously.
“I’m flattered that you think of me as God.” At this point, the voice changed. It was like a TV with someone flicking a switch to change the channel, so drastic was the mutation. The voice was bass and acid now.
“I’m not God. But I know that you’re a worm.”
I’m not one to get easily offended but I flinched.
“You’re a worm that thinks it’s a peacock. Tell me. How many times have you compared yourself to Madan and felt that all was well in your world because you were better off than him? Ten? Twenty. No.”
“EIGHT THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY ONE!”, the voice roared.
“Let me tell you the truth. You’re not as tall as you think. You’re not as clever as you think. Your face isn’t as angular as you think. Your muscles are not as well defined as you think. Your teeth are not as well-formed as you think. Your hair is not as thick as you think. Your belly sticks out when you walk. Your hands are tiny and wiggly. Your nose is too large. Your ears stick out. Your elbows are dirty. Your breath smells like your feet. Your feet smell like durian. You’re slightly hunch-backed.”
At the same time as this barrage of insults, something else happened to me. A montage of images and sensations and feelings tumbled end over end in my mind, as if injected from elsewhere. They swirled and pinged in Brownian motion, but eventually knotted within themselves intricately to do one just one thing.
Show me how the world saw me. All the faults that the Voice pointed out in High Definition video. Only one word escaped my lips.
“That’s what they all say. No!” the Voice chuckled. Malice punctuated each syllable.
“And you know what. Your fake stoicism is a sham. Everyone sees through it and laughs at you. They think you’re affected and that you’re a buffoon for it and that’s why they keep you around. For laughs. And when you try to keep your face impassive in the face of overwhelming emotion, it gets all pinched up like you’re constipated. More laughs. Your cool nature shots from your treks? Muscle memory likes are what you get on social media. No one cares.”
“And that thing you do in your head. Seeing horror movies in every little mundane scene in your life, that’s the most pathetic thing. Even a three year old child would be embarrassed to fantasize the way you do. Madan laughs at you.”
“Girls laugh at you. Girls laugh behind your back. Your mom laughs at you. Your dad smiles sympathetically like a baboon family smiles at demented offspring before eating it for lunch. You’ll die alone. You’ll never amount to anything. You’re worthless.”
Again that fast scrolling sequence of images, sensations and emotions showed me exactly how the world saw me. Girls thought I was a worm. I am a worm.
The Voice tittered. If a basso profundo titters, it sounds like Hell’s door creaking open. Just FYI.
“If you disappeared today, the world would be better off. Madan is already cheering your absence you know. After a token microsecond of concern. What is the point of you?”
“WHAT IS THE POINT OF YOU?”
Something snapped. Like a child’s hand sweeping a slate clear, the noxious montages were wiped clean, and I said a little more forcefully:
The Voice faded and wasn’t heard again. I sat around for a bit, waiting for it to come back, and in its absence I grew braver and braver, so much so that I was ready to strike down the owner of the Voice in one fell swoop when it reappeared. For emotional trauma. I was judge, jury and executioner.
Presently though, I picked myself up and walked back through the cave system in a daze. The glowing metallic veins returned at some point but I barely noticed. All I could perceive was the bubbling cauldron of righteous indignation that seethed underneath the surface. I noticed that my fists were balled up, and the hair on my arms stood on end. Inconsolable rage sent shivers up and down my body like waves. Something had to give.
A sound wafted through the dimness and resolved itself into a laugh. I reached down and picked up a large rock that lay at my feet and threw it in the direction of the sound. I heard a wet plop and bared my teeth in barbaric satisfaction. How dare they laugh at me? I’ll show them. The tumult that my body held was not easily restrained. I seethed and boiled, but there were no more outlets.
The mouth of the tunnel appeared in the distance, and grew larger and larger until I found myself in a sandstorm. All my rage disappeared in an instant, leaving behind a gnawing void. I was missing something, but I didn’t know what it was. I trudged on wearily through the sandstorm for hours and hours and hours. It felt like I wasn’t moving at all. Despite its constant motion, the sandstorm had a static quality to it, and I was like a hamster on a wheel, marching forward but staying in the same place.
A face appeared in the distance. It was a man. He was in his mid-thirties and dressed for a party by the look of things. The shirt was midnight black and covered with shiny sparkly stars, and the trousers hugged his legs like they were afraid they would float away if they didn’t. His hair was once smoothly slicked into a fashionable Pompadour but the coating of sand particles somewhat ruined the effect. I ran at him and grabbed his arm. He started, nudged his pointless shades to the tip of his nose, looked down at me, and roughly pushed me away.
“Wait!” I croaked.
He paused mid-stride.
“Do you think that my hair is thinning at the crown?”
This was a man who was obviously used to a gregarious lifestyle of small talk, flirting and sweet nothings. But he couldn’t make a sound beyond a noncommittal ‘Hmm’.
I trudged on. Meanwhile, my brain was feverishly replaying every single event from my life. That time when my first girlfriend called me handsome? She was only being polite. Now that I think about it, there was a vague tone of irony in her voice when she said that. And Madan. Madan was better at everything than I was. He was funny, sociable and emotional. I was a colourless stone. And my work? I thought I was helping the world working in customer care. Who was I fooling? Melancholy washed over like a tidal flood. I was exhausted and not just physically. Tears streamed down my cheeks, dribbled down my chin, and dripped down onto my chest. I was in the dreamy savannah again.
I really don’t like sad stories so I’m hitting the fast forward button again. So what happened then was that I somehow ran into Madan. He was bawling like a baby. We hugged, told each other that we were never doing this again and walked through the slimy part-woods together. At that time I thought it was each other’s company that brought us relief, but it was deeper. Spiritual bliss I had called it right? I always had a way with words because that’s just what it was. I had somehow realized that everything that I thought was good about myself was an affectation. To truly be happy, I had to be myself. Whatever that was. Crazy dude who saw horror movies in every mundane scene maybe? I think Madan too found his version of Nirvana, but he still blabbed like it was his last day on Earth, so I suppose that part of him wasn’t an affectation. We smiled and egged a young Chinese couple on that we met on the way.
Just as we stepped off the trail’s entrance, and before we went on live long, successful, authentic lives, we passed a signboard that we didn’t see. It said:
“The Kubler-Ross trail.”