Two hundred yards remain to be covered. I can accomplish this by nightfall, I think to myself. My sheepskin rucksack is bare except for a few incense sticks and an ashtray. A tiny purple jar carries a balm, which, as the Tatar vendor promised me, would cure anything as long as I believed in it. The late afternoon sun beats down on my back, throwing enormous shadows on the sandy ground. If only my legs were that long, I wonder, I could have reached my destination a few days earlier.
I recall an oration from over two months ago, when I was smoking my first hookah in a shabby inn. Wonder and hope are two companions that can circumstantially remain friends or manifest as enemies. Just like the turbulent relationship between scanty rain and rough desert bush, wonder and hope survive off each other. Seeds of hope tend to scatter far and wide, taking root in any soil. The mysteries of the universe evoke wonder and speculation, which feed hope, nourishing it till maturity. Climbs however, are unforgiving and the strongest of hopes will be uprooted by gusty winds of doubt or gales of failure.
The natural world is full of perplexities, large and small. For animals prone to the will of curiosity, all must be discovered, scrutinised and laid bare, like weapons arranged scrupulously before battle. The human mind seeks to advance as far as it can, vitalised by the thought of what lies beyond its limits. We observe, theorise, classify and draw a map of ‘knowledge’; knowledge that serves to observe, theorise, and classify some more. We rejoice at every result, tangible in form and record.
“How far can man walk this way?” a nervous voice questioned from the shadowy recesses of the dimly lit inn. It was another vagabond like myself, formerly from Bolivia, as I learnt later. Sitting around the blazing fire, we men and women were in search of the same thing. Not so much a thing, as a secret. The secret of mankind, as the Shamans liked to call it. We originated from the antipodes, each man spewing his culture in talk and gesture. What an interesting mix, I thought to myself, when I first encountered this motley bunch.
“Let the colors and languages not fool you”, the head Shaman thundered, reading my mind. He added after a pause, “These are merely different clothes for the same old soul”.
A balding Albanian woman whispered that this was what he talked of each evening with the motley crew. Of course, there existed several disbelievers who questioned his sentences and criticised his thoughts. Never one to argue, the head Shaman, who could be anybody, any man from the Middle East or even Turkey, let his laugh do the talking. Sometimes his eyes glinted in the evening fire.
“A man will continue walking only when he believes that wonder and hope will lead him to the secret. Why measure the distance then?”
It would take a lifetime to decipher the meaning of the Shaman’s words. He rarely ever spoke clearly, “Open your minds, not merely your ears. Ears hear, but minds comprehend”.
I stopped mid-gait. A thorn had lodged itself in my heel. I tugged, pulled, eyes brimming with hot tears but the thorn sat still, refusing to budge. Remembering the balm, I smeared huge dollops on the wound, but it only stung sharper instead of bringing me the relief I prayed for.
My being was now in the middle of harsh grey outback, shrouded in dusk. Cold winds whipped my body and pricked my soul, as if to weaken my spirit. I smelled a carcass and wondered if it was a sign of bad luck. I felt a hand on my back, then whirled around to see a woman dressed in a multicolored apron looking at me. What was a babushka like her doing in this land and at this hour? Without a word, she led me by the arm to a crumbling hut. Hadn’t I just crossed the dried stream? I didn’t remember seeing any signs of human habitation. My head spun with countless questions, however I found myself unable to talk. I did not resist the babushka’s generosity. Inside the hut, she seated me on a stringed bed and as if by intuition, lifted my left heel and placed it on her lap. With an expert flick of her wrist, she dislodged the thorn. It lay pliant in her callused fingers. A pulp of shala leaves and quahve powder was applied on my wound, bandaged with a strip of cloth torn from the Persian tapestry hanging on the wall. I saw that it had once formed the words ‘Allah-u-Akbar’, but the ‘Al’ was now missing. I bowed my head in gratitude and smiled at the babushka who said nothing. We shared a few sips of sweet sherry that night.
Perhaps we relished a few cups, for I don’t recall when and where I slept that night. I was still in a stupor when I awoke the next morning. The babushka was not in her hut and when I stepped out, the land was neither desert nor outback, rather, the nameless destination flashing in my dreams. Jagged rocks rose before me, snow sitting on their tops like Papa Noël’s hat. Steel blue smoke wafted in the air through the surrounding conifers. I was now standing on a sort of wooden pier, the same hut behind me, overlooking a lake formed in the crevices of the valley ahead.
It didn’t take me long to realize I was at my destination. Temporal and spatial connections seemed frivolous, now that I had learnt the secret. I sensed it in my bones—the knowledge that seemed to elude me for ages. Pilgrimage and sacrifice were superfluous, I realised, for the secret was what transpired between the babushka and myself late last evening. Unlike all other discoveries, this didn’t make me dizzy with delight.
A force exists between all things on earth, animate and inanimate. As the self-proclaimed highest beings in the food chain, we humans have progressed from pinnacle to pinnacle while losing sense of the knowledge we were born with, that of relating to our fellow beings.
Back to the desert after all these years. Having comprehended the secret, my hunger lay satiated. I could hear the young dervishes growling with the same hunger that had once consumed me.
“Open your minds, not merely your ears. Ears hear, but minds comprehend”.