FROM THE ANNALS OF AN UNIDENTIFIED, BESPECTACLED, ASTHMATIC AND RHEUMATIC ROCK CLIMBER, VERGING ON EARLY MIDDLE AGE, WHO HAD HAD ENOUGH OF ROCK CLIMBING FOR A LIFETIME AND BEYOND...
DAY TWO: It's three o'clock in a jungle few kilometres close to the hills of Jharkhand, and a pack of jackals are having hysterics somewhere close, unaccustomed to humans camping in their free-trade zones at the penultimate day of the European calendar year."Ka-hua, Ka-hua," they talk amongst each other.
A devout jackal trying to sink his teeth into an Extremely Unnegotiable Roti (probably one of those I unsuccessfully tried to have at dinner with something vaguely resembling half-roasted indigestible brinjal) speaks: "Ho, ho, Ho-Ka-Hua, these humans are trying to climb those rocks even that extremely smelly black animal with hooves and a tuft of beard avoids climbing. Lord, they must be mad."
"You doubt," chips in another, "Ha, these rocks are extemely slippery and I wish someone slips and falls and breaks his neck. We'll have our party then. Damn this recession, Ka-Hua."
"Yeah, I hope it's the fat, er, healthy one with thick shiny bits of glass over his eyes," says the devout jackal persistently negotiating the Extremely Unnegotiable Roti, and probably a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. "Ha, ha, Ha-Ka-Hua. Did you see him climbing? An overaged overweight Tarzan of the Apes, swinging in space like a hopeless elephant."
"Let's hope he falls, let's hope he falls, Ka-Hua, Ka-Hua," they scream in indecent chorus, as they forage close to the tents of the Rock Climbing Trainees. But thankfully The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks had been forced to keep his shoes and socks outside the tent flap, and now they act as an active deterrent for all nocturnal creatures.
I wake up. I am almost sweating from a nightmare of what passed as the previous day, myself on all fours, clawing and scampering over a huge barren rock formation, seemingly close to the clouds, and the plains far down below, a rope with a bowline knot tied loosely to my waist faintly inspiring security, and with my bottle-glassed spectacles foggy with sweat. I think of having a drag, but the free smoking zone is a steep climb half a kilometre uphill ("Smoking is strictly prohibited in the camp areas"), and I'm cozy inside my sleeping-bag like a wizened dracula neatly folded up inside a coffin and with painful tent-pegs stuck deep in his heart, knees and toes. I resist the temptation.
But now someone imploringly tugs hard at my rented sleeping-bag, smelly from the devil-knows-how-many past expeditions, as I try to balance myself into a comfortable position from the inside. I find I'm perched atop a slippery foam mattress, and inside a knee-high tent packed tight with three occupants and all the men campers' rucksacks, reminding you of all the pungent and immoderate zoo smells you ever experienced. The tent's inside is foggy and wet, with sweaty vapours dripping down the sides.
"Dada, please, I've to go to the loo." My sleeping bag gets a simultaneous hard pull. It's The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer who has been going without his essential fluid for the last two days.
"Go on, what's troubling you?" But he's persistent: "You don't understand, I have to go to the loo."
"No need to climb up high," I groan, contemplating the freezing cold outside. "The instructors are sleeping, especially Madame Chiang, and you can just get behind the tent, climb a little downhill, and find yourself a cozy place next to the weedy pond," I say weakly to the speaker. "Damn, they'll pull us up mercilessly in just an hour an a half for the horrid 3km-run and exercises. Why don't you control your emotions and get a little sleep?"
But The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer is desperate, he had spent seven years at a military school where they issued single-barreled rifles and bullets to students for chasing down stray dogs. His claim to fame was an encounter he had on the roads last year with five drunken brawlers, whom he claimed to have knocked down with one-for-each Mike Tyson punches. And he's known to have carried a menacing Rambo-style knife to the Sunderbans, intent on killing any man-eating tigers on land or river, if they happened to cross his way. But now, it's a different voice speaking.
"You've to get up," The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer almost shouts, and then, drops into a whisper: "There're jackals outside. You know I'm not afraid of jackals, but uuff, they are simply too many." Cold logic!
A torch flares up inside the tent, and I realise with horror that The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks is awake and thinking of getting out of the tent. But he's faster than me, and before I can throw myself out of the tent, I'm overthrown by the, the, what you call it, eek ... The Smell. By the time I'm out of the tent, both of my tent-mates have disappeared, and The Smell steps out of the tent and proceeds to devour the night sky, hung overhead like a damp smelly sock. Risking no more, I feel for the wrap of tissues in my pockets, spare a glimpse of Orion and the desolate celestial hunter high up in the sky, and limp towards the weedy pond, groping in the dark.
"Let us catch you littering close to the camp site, and I promise I'll make you use your dinner plate to clean up everything, tissues and all," Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, an overtly stern-looking camp instructor had warned the previous day. A schoolteacher by profession, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek is one of the singularly stern disciplinarians I've ever seen since my schooldays who uses words like stinging whips, even on people who thought they had conveniently left their school life nightmares some decades behind. But indigestible half-cooked brinjals and Extremely Unnegotiable Roti(s) can work wonders in your intestines, and make you brave enough to risk all possible outcomes in extreme darkness; yes, even the wrath of angry schoolteachers and Chinese gods of malice.
Edging on the weed pond, I sense The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer easing himself right next to the pond, with The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks posed as a brave sentry between him and the jackals, absent-mindedly fiddling with a pen-drive, which I'm sure contains half a million lethal viruses. Without a second thought, I light up a cigarette, smile uncomfortably at The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks for I had shouted at him in the morning after my toothpaste and toothbrush mysteriously smelled of his socks, and proceed to look for a cozy spot.
True were the words of the court jester who told the king of Nabadweep after a prince was born that he felt happy as if he had just relieved himself. True werest thy words, Old Master Rabelais, who found true happiness in expunged emotions and other bodily virtues. And true werest thou, divine alchemist Paracelsus, who insisted that nothing was to be learned of life if you avoided the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation. Ah, heaven! I too shat like I had never before!
The next day, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek lines up all the trainees, and proceeds to launch another tirade: "This will be your last warning, how many times do I've to tell you, blah, blah, blah!" And her suspicion zeroes in on a defiant fidgety kid doing the final rounds of his engineering college, whom she keeps under stricter gaze for the rest of the camp. Poor kid, he's spared the cleaning-up, but his sneaking out and smoking reaches a conclusive end. I exchange a nirvana glance with The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer, and we quietly proceed to climb on to our free smoking zone for a refreshing drag before our bones are bashed against the rocks...