When people think of happiness, they think of their first love, the first date, that first kiss, they think of their loved ones, their families, the long-awaited reunion journey with their circle, and they think of times spent with friends.
I am not and never have been one of those people.
Onboard the boarding school
The Boarding School departed me from my family at an age far too young. I should have been happy, having been one of the chosen few in the district to qualify for the school, having passed their strict examination. And I was for a bit, truly, it was all sort of adventurous. Well, until a week had passed bereft of my mom’s cooking, I realized far too late what I had given up. I only then truly thought about the fact that I actually had to live away from the comfort of my nest. While my comrade in arms found their second family, their best friends, and a home on the campus, with that easy acceptance that comes with an innocent childhood, I did not. For I was not and never had been one of those people either.
The first three years of my life in boarding school were spent trying to smile, act my way into various friend circles, trying to get by, and just trying to fit in. Life had become quite dull and repetitive. And then I heard about the two-week-long scout guide camping trip to a hill station in Pachmadi, a famous tourist attraction somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. I was 13. As much as I wanted to be a part of it, I knew that only two spots were available, and of all the students trying to participate, the chances of getting picked would be akin to winning a lottery. Even if I discounted the possibility of teachers just picking up their favorites and calling it a day, those were still impossible odds for me.
Perhaps my fate took pity on me or maybe the gods my mother used to worship daily? But by a stroke of good luck, the state-wise sports festival was being held at my school that year. To fully understand the significance of the annual sports festival, you need to know why it was so sought after. Well, imagine this scenario. You live in a residential boarding school, where you are made to call every single girl your sister, every guy your brother. Going so far as to make it official by having your hands tied with “Rakhi” on the Indian holy festival of RakshaBandhan. To every girl senior to you, and two classes junior to you.
Basically, every person you could possibly like to be more than just “fake siblings” with. It was kind of mandatory. Well, you could refuse, of course. But then you will have to explain why you don’t want to call that specific girl your sister. To your teachers. They’ll then tell your Indian parents. Now, not only will you face your friends making fun of you, girls giving you the stink eye, and teachers giving you their trademark disappointed looks, but you’ll also get whooped back home. Everybody will know. Mortified yet? Welcome to my childhood.
But, as if the deities themselves couldn’t bear to witness this injustice to the hormonal adolescent students, the Inter-School Annual Sports/Cultural Meets were arranged. And with it came the opportunity to meet new people, make new friends and, of course, do sports! Who would want to miss an occasion so momentous as that, right?..
That would be me. I had not a single thought or investment in meeting new people, let alone flirting. Like, I spent most of my time in the library for a reason you know? I became a bookworm trying to hide from others. My love for literature didn’t come naturally, to be quite honest. Some guys just mature later in life.
So, suddenly, the much sought-after adventurous trip had become something undesirable, like work. So, being the opportunistic little devil that I was, I applied and got selected instantly. Yay me!
The journey begins
Some say it’s about the journey, not the destination, but for me, it was about both. Being a quiet child from a village secluded somewhere in the rural landscapes of Chhattisgarh, it was obviously my very first train ride. And oh, what a ride, what a journey. I am usually not one for crowds, but among the hub-hub of traveler’s rush in the train stations, I found a kind of kinship among my fellow voyagers.
Reaching the Pachmadi forest campus, a short tuk-tuk ride from the train station, I found it to be everything and more than I could have imagined, but the best was yet to come.
Usually, it used to be very hard for me to fit in with other students, but this was not a usual situation. The next morning after getting changed, my eyes could only vaguely see a sea full of students in the scout and guide uniforms, but for once in my life I fit right in, wearing the same.
Except, of course, for the fact that I was the youngest scout present on the whole campus. The shortest and weakest. I was quite nervous in the beginning, meeting others, but the reassuring words of my senior scouts soothed my worries. The sense of being a part of a greater whole, working as a unit, had never before made so much sense to me.
In the mornings there were gadget competitions, tools made out of sticks and vines, to be used for survival in the wild and also for utility purposes. Not that we had any actual use for hunting or such, as the main campus was fully stocked with all the necessities, but the point of practical knowledge is, to be a reference to be used in times of need.
After the short breakfast every morning, we would be asked to pack up our utilities and lunch from the canteen, and march, rest and march, and then march some more through the winding forest trails of the Pachmadi hills, tired, whining, grumpy, hungry, but the destinations.. the hidden paradises of nature so far out, untainted of the urban mayhem, the beautiful, beautiful sceneries, were worth every second of it.
Surprise adventure trip
The destinations varied quite splendidly, from adventurous horse riding, while the wind ruffles your hair and caresses your cheeks, to arduous cliff wall climbing, and kayak riding in rivers, to going to historical locations for their educational value and such. But the adventure that changed it all for me, the fork in the road of my life, my defining moment, started with a bet.
The destination of the second to last day of the camping was a river crossing. Going by the sound of it. None of us were worried at first, it seemed self-explanatory enough, but the smirking seniors, the rare few, who had been through this before, kept ringing warning bells in my head. I, of course, in the rush of the journey, ignored it at the time. We were separated into two groups that day. The longer we kept tracking, we started noticing something fishy as we kept going up, up, up into the hills and then a sudden stop, on a ledge of the cliff. Between two hills separated by a gushing river deep down in the natural valley thus formed, a building of pulleys and ropes and harness, joined the two cliffs temporarily, and then the penny dropped.
‘Ah, of course.. river crossing.’
It started with senior students. The experienced ones made it seem effortless, and we relaxed a bit too soon though. As the students kept trying, they kept failing, some had to be pulled back through the harness attached to them, and some kept clinging to the rope, refusing to let go, so they had to be brought back, dragged manually by a similar set of crossing rope, perhaps in foresight, set up for just such a scenario. Many passed too, mostly the sporty, athletic ones. Being older and healthier has its own perks.
And then came along a bunch of stereotyped backbenchers, perhaps to settle their own nerves by picking on someone seemingly weaker.
‘I bet the shorty pees his pants halfway, calling for his mommy’ says the lanky kid grinning arrogantly, a senior perhaps?
‘I bet he begged the instructor not to make him do it’ says another snickering while trying to hide them from catching the eye of the instructor.
“And what if I do cross it!” I ground out with my teeth clenched, my knuckles white, and childish fury in my eyes.
‘Aww, how cute, the kitten has fangs.. well if you do, I’ll address you as ‘your highness’ in front of everyone’ says the lanky senior lazily, but now more interested with a spark of curiosity in his eyes.
Your fingers burn, you are covered in goosebumps, hanging down while your legs shake, and your hands keep slipping from the rope tied between two hills, the rope you are supposed to use to kind of crawl and drag yourself across the rift. ‘How did I even get here?’ You muse, ‘Were the seniors really at fault for provoking you, or were you looking for unnecessary adventure yourself?.’ You keep glancing at the extensive valley below you, and you keep thinking, “What in the seven hells was I even thinking?? Perhaps this is what the seniors mean when they talk about the hormonal impulses of puberty?”
Trying to distract your terror with your thoughts doesn’t work. See, you know you are secured with a harness, you kind of know that this has been done before, this is safe, you are safe. Yet, at the same time, do you really know for sure? Our primal fears are hard to overcome. At that moment you are more afraid, more present in the moment, more alive than you’d ever been. You consider just giving up, but it is more than about pride, it’s not just about your ego, it has become something grander. You don’t need to prove it to others, not really, do you? Now you need to prove to yourself, that you’re not just all talk. One way or another, it’s too late to back down. You need to see it through.
So, you crawl your way across the rope, up in the air, trying desperately not to look down at the rumbling river beneath. Slowly, trembling, you consider calling it off, yet the insistent defiance within you, the quiet fire within your lonesome, introverted soul, engulfs and burns away the fear with a roar of rage, and then, after the longest 3 minutes of your life, you reach across to the other side. People cheer, and your seniors congratulate you on your bravery, as older than you had opted out less than halfway.
You hear a laughing voice cheering ‘well done your highness!.’ You hear the praises and applause, yet this is all the faraway background noise. The only sound you can hear is the thundering heartbeat and a racing pulse full of adrenaline, slowly calming down as your body finds itself unhurt, despite the odds.
Relief washes over you in waves. You break into tears, overwhelmed with warmth, as you did not do it to prove to others, you did it to prove to yourself that you can in fact go through all the hurdles in life. Struggling, crawling, fighting your way across, even if it’s just you, all alone.
Acceptance and self-discovery
Unlike others, you do not find your lifelong companions, your best friends, or your second family, on this journey. Here, you found something much more important to you, something much more precious. You have never been happy among people and crowds… and basically people. Well, you still don’t get others’ fascination with meeting new people, but that’s okay. You don’t have to be the same as others. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be you.
You have found peace in this adventure, in that moment with a crowd watching but overcoming it on your lonesome, you have experienced liberty. You know now that, above all, you have always, always, craved freedom. Amidst the deafening silence of the natural ambiance, in the racing heartbeats of riding a horse, in conquering your fear of heights, in climbing a cliff wall, river crossing, you find your missing piece. Your true nature. Your vagabond soul.
In a bid to find some adventure in your life, you found yourself.