“Welcome,” said Guru Hadiya Chandra in breezy tones, spreading his brawny nut-brown arms, “to the Tranquillity and Enlightenment Tour of Bebuniyaad Jungle, also known as the Never-Ending Rainbow Rainforest. I will be your guide through the wonders and spectacles of the jungle. I will introduce you to its unique flora and fauna, its ruins and its aboriginal residents. There are, of course, dangers in the jungle. Predatory beasts roam here that live nowhere else in the world, as well as hallucinogenic fungi, poisonous flowers and sedative nuts. You must do as I say at all times. This way, you are ensured a safe and pleasant voyage. Understood?”
The nine people gathered in front of him on the edge of the jungle nodded as birds called and swooped overhead in gaudy raiment.
“Listen, Guru,” brayed one of the men in the group, a bloated toad in flamboyant green, “my name is Fravash Agarwal, and I just came to make sure you understand why my son, Babul, is here. He needs to learn to control that bloody temper of his, that’s what he needs! He’s a Gods-damned nuisance back at the manor, so he is! The servants have had it up to here with him! As have we! So, see that you calm him down or I’ll hunt you to the ends of Maradoum to get my money back, you hear?”
Guru Chandra bobbed his head at the man placidly, though it was to the son that he spoke. “If that is what enlightenment means to you, then that is what you will find here.”
“You swear?” Fravash demanded.
“I swear by all the Gods.”
“Hmph,” Fravash grunted. “Good enough, I suppose. Well, now that that’s seen to, I have more important places to be.” He turned to the pudgy woman by his side and planted a kiss on her cheek. “Take care of our son, Lakhi. I’ll see you in a few days.” He turned to his chubby son. “And you, Babul, behave yourself, you hear? Or there’ll be Demons to pay. Farewell!”
With that, he turned and strode east across the plains, back towards the heart of Ishambria.
Guru Chandra swept the rest of the group with his gaze and smiled. “Are we all ready?”
“Ready!” they replied.
“Excellent!” The Guru beamed through a bushy black beard braided into the shape of a trident. “Then, please follow me!”
He swept away into the jungle, his gold silk robe trailing behind him, his golden turban gleaming in the sun one moment and dappled by foliage the next. Beneath the finery, a simple white satin shirt stretched taut across his barrel chest, struggling to cover both mountainous shoulders without ripping. Pale, puffy linen pantaloons hid legs like tree trunks. By contrast, those stepping into the jungle’s shade behind him were twig-people, skinny as refugees. All were garbed in even greater opulence than their guide, however. Golden rings gleamed on fingers. Diamond earrings glittered in the speckled light. Silver ornaments flashed like opals, opals flashed like pearls, and pearls flashed like white fire. Silken clothes crusted with gems and embroidered with gold and silver thread glittered like droplets of dew-fire. Guru Chandra shook his head inwardly at the lavishness of their getups, knowing they’d all be waterlogged and dirt-stained by the time they were through. They had paid to spend four days in the jungle with him, and he suspected they might be the four most difficult days of their lives.
“You may be used to striding down fig-lined streets of marble with servants fanning you with palm fronds every step of the way,” said the Guru over his shoulder, “but here you will find only dirt trails lined with baobabs and banyans, I’m afraid. The palm fronds you’ll have to find and wave yourself. Still, a bit of hardship is exactly why you are here, eh? Hardship is good for the soul, you know. Problem-solving keeps the mind agile, the body alert and fresh. We humans have come to take so much for granted, because we have so much – roofs over our heads, warmth, dryness, food and water, and above all – safety. Safety is what we have come to rely on the most, I think. But you must always be wary out here. That is what the jungle teaches you. There is always something deadly lurking just around the next tree, just overhead ... or just underfoot. See here? I almost stepped on a king cobra. That would likely have been the last mistake I ever made.”
The group gasped as the cobra swayed up into the air, eyes fixated on the Guru, hood spreading open. It bared its fangs and hissed, its forked tongue flickering in and out almost faster than the eye could follow.
“Do not move,” Guru Chandra commanded coolly, crouching slowly to look the snake in the eye. “Hello there, my brother,” he cooed. “You’re a handsome fellow and no mistake.” The cobra lunged for his face, but in a blur of movement he caught its neck in one hand and its tail in the other and held it out for the group to see. “This is what your trip is all about. Tranquillity. Enlightenment. Only the calm can catch a snake. Had I panicked, the cobra would have killed me. Had I run, the cobra would have killed me. Had I attacked, the cobra would have killed me. What I needed to do was stay calm and react appropriately. This is what I hope to teach you – in part – over the next few days.”
The group nodded, flummoxed by his speed and skill. The Guru smiled benignly and flung the cobra away into the undergrowth with one swift motion. All eyes followed it as it clattered through a screen of twigs and broad green leaves and disappeared.
“He will be fine,” Guru Chandra assured them. “It will take more than that to hurt such a snake. Come now, follow me – and keep an eye on where you tread. Mind those nettles; they have a nasty sting.”
Skirting the patch of yellow-flowering jagged-edged nettles, he continued down what could scarcely be called a trail, consisting of a winding swathe of flattened shrubbery where some beast or beasts had recently scurried through the dense jungle.
“D’you hear that?” the Guru asked his quiet companions, pointing up. They all stopped and listened to the dense buzzing punctuated by squawks. “Does anyone know what animals are making those noises?”
“Birds!” called out the pudgy boy with an unruly mop of dark hair, Babul Agarwal.
“Insects!” called out a moon-faced girl with long locks reaching the small of her back.
The third child opened his mouth, then shut it again, eyes darting this way and that.
“Very good, Babul, Ishani,” said Guru Chandra with a gentle smile. “But do you know what species of birds or insects we are hearing?”
The children shook their heads, as did their parents.
“Those are hornbills and sunbirds we are hearing in the sky above us,” the Guru explained patiently, “and the drone you hear that seems to vibrate your very ears is created by a mixture of calls emanating from crickets and grasshoppers. Look, there’s one!”
He pointed, and all eyes turned just in time to witness a tiny green insect jump out of sight into the bushes. Ishani oohed. Her mother, Oshee Mannan, quickened her pace to come abreast of Guru Chandra while her father, Kabir Mannan, remained by her side, ever-watchful for threats to his precious cargo.
“Peace, Guru,” Oshee greeted the Guru aloofly, chin high, hair tied up in a complex knot. “I just wanted to remind you of our daughter’s … special requirements. Ishani requires a non-stimulating, peaceful environment to keep her … mood swings … at bay.”
Guru Chandra nodded, his hands clasped inside his sleeves. “I have not forgotten, Kshatriya,” he said, naming her by class.
“Well, what was that infernal nonsense with the snake then?” Oshee demanded in a shrill voice. “Such threats to my daughter’s peace of mind will not be tolerated, you hear? We came here for a tour of tranquillity and enlightenment, not to scare her half to death with wild animals!”
The Guru gave her a forbearing smile. “What did you expect to find in the jungle?” he asked mildly. She flapped her lips stupidly for a moment, before he continued smoothly, “Rest assured, my good lady, your child is perfectly safe with me. This jungle is my home, and I will allow nothing here to bring her – or any of you – to any harm. I promise.”
“I should hope not!” Oshee muttered, slightly mollified. She paused then asked, “Do you truly think you can help her control her powers?”
Guru Chandra met her dark eyes with his own. “I do.”
She bit her lip, then nodded and drifted back to join her husband and daughter, leaves crinkling under her jewelled sandals.
A father to another of the children drew close to the bearded Guru then, his dark skin contrasting with his gem-studded white garments which were quickly turning brown. “Guru, I wondered if I might speak with you a moment regarding my son.”
“Of course, Vedesh,” said the Guru, but then a scuffle in the undergrowth caught his attention and he held up a palm to forestall any further words, though they were on the tip of Vedesh’s tongue.
Vedesh Thakur frowned, but Guru Chandra paid him no mind, intent on the thickets nearby. A low grunting sounded, and everyone froze. Crouching and waving for the others to do the same, the Guru slowly pulled the slung bow from over his shoulder and took an iron-tipped arrow from the quiver resting against his back. Nocking the arrow, he took a slow deep breath.
“Tapir, by the smell,” he whispered. “Must be close by. I think it might have heard us, but it hasn’t fully spooked yet. It’s curious. I doubt it sees much of mankind in this jungle. Hold still.”
Cupping one hand to his mouth, he let out a mimicking grunt so lifelike that some of the parents started in fright at hearing the noise so close by. The tapir came charging through the bushes a moment later, expecting to meet one of its own kind. It streaked out of the foliage straight towards the children and their parents, and they all screamed as one. The pig-like creature skidded in the dirt and came to a stop at their feet in a plume of dust, a black-fletched arrow sticking from its flank just behind the shoulder. It was not breathing.
“Gods, that was a close one!” the families cried out, wiping their brows and grinning giddily.
“I thought he was going to gore us for sure!”
“Look at the size of him!”
“He’s a brute, isn’t he?”
“I say, fine shot, Guru, but you let him get a bit close, no?”
“Yes indeed, fine shot, Guru.”
“It’s a she,” said the Guru, bending to retrieve his arrow and examine the body. “Would anyone care to help me gut the beast?”
No one moved. No one spoke. Guru Chandra smiled. “No one wants to help me honour this noble animal? Very well, then I will be happy to do it myself.”
Taking a small sharp knife from his snakeskin belt, he knelt, rolled the tapir on its back and slit it open from groin to neck before wrenching out the steaming red-purple guts, the smell of which made some of the children – and even some of the parents – gag. Rolling the detritus away from the meat, he glanced up at his companions.
“Would anyone care to do her the honour of carrying her? She will make a hearty meal tonight. Just look at all that juicy meat.”
He patted the dead beast. No one moved. No one spoke. Guru Chandra smiled. “No one wants to dirty themselves by burdening themselves with the beast, eh? And yet I am confident you will all want a taste when the day is done. Very well. That is fine for now. I will carry her. But I hope you will all learn that you must pitch in here if we are to get through this. Everyone must pull their weight – and that of this tapir.”
Digging a stretch of rope from the hide bag hanging from his shoulder and tying the critter’s legs together to make it easier to carry, the Guru set off once more with the others in tow, silent after his chastisement.
After a while, though, Vedesh approached him once more and said, “Guru, I wanted to ask you before … when I approached you … you know … I wanted to ask you whether you could include my son, Zubin, a little more as we go on. I would have loved it if he could have gotten a little closer to that cobra, for instance. I know this is a tranquillity and enlightenment tour, but I had hoped he would find some excitement here. Something to get his blood pumping, you know? He’s such a shy child. I think some adventure is exactly what he needs to help bring him out of his shell.”
Guru Chandra nodded thoughtfully. “I will bear that in mind, thank you, Vedesh.” He stopped walking and turned to face the man. “Do you think your son would like to see a porcupine?”
“Oh yes,” gushed Vedesh, also coming to a halt, “if we should happen across one, I’m sure he’d be happy to take a closer look.”
“Excellent. Because there’s one just behind you.”
“Argh!” Vedesh let out a yelp and leapt a foot into the air.
The rest of the group watched the porcupine’s spines disappearing into the brush with a rustle, the creature clearly startled by the outburst.
Shamefaced, Vedesh turned to Guru Chandra, “Well … thank you for the thought anyway. Um, yes. In future, please try to include Zubin a little more. If you can. Thank you.”
He turned abruptly and stalked back to his son’s side, flushed beneath his mahogany complexion. His son did not meet his eyes, did not meet anyone’s eyes, merely stared at the snakelike roots wending between the rotting leaves at his feet.
“Come along,” the Guru beckoned the group with a smile. “We have a long way to go yet."
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