The piercing sun during noon casting its rays directly on me made it difficult to open my eyes. I couldn’t even move my hands to use it as a curtain between the sun and my face, just so that I can open my eyes. Laid on hot sand amidst desert I felt helpless and everything until now was going as per the plan.
I was peacefully listening to the sound of wind which was transporting scattered tiny little rocks to contribute in forming other sand dunes. That pleasant sound was soon interrupted with someone squawking. I opened my eyes but got blinded for few seconds by bright sunlight. I struggled to bring my hands over my face for shade and saw vultures hovering above me, waiting for me to die.
Driving a Maruti Gypsy on the sand dunes of Thar Desert was the last thing I remembered. I forged deeper into this vast expanse of desolated area until my gypsy crashed while traversing a sand dune.
I felt a sudden urge to drink water. My throat was parched and when I smacked my lips it felt as if someone with cracked feet is walking on barren soil. I was willing to die amidst desert where sun would scorch my body and scavengers would feed on it but I couldn’t control my thirst.
I summoned all my strength to get up so that I can drink water but I couldn’t spot my gypsy, nowhere around me. I climbed the nearest sand dune hoping that it will increase the probability of finding gypsy but it didn’t help.
“How can a gypsy just disappear in the widespread desert” I questioned myself.
My vision blurred with the overpowering heat of sun and I collapsed. With eyes half closed I saw a pot far behind which was growing taller after every second. Soon I saw face of a woman who was carrying the pot on her head. Robed in traditional rajasthani dress she walked towards me.
The moment she looked at me, she stopped and stood there for a while. She was still about 20 meters away from me but I could clearly see her.
Her head was under the shade of red veil which further draped down to cover left side of her face and lips, leaving only her nose and eyes exposed. With one hand she was holding veil near her lips while other took hold of the pot resting on her head.
After observing me for a brief amount of time she changed direction and started walking away. I was in no position to harm her but she might have got scared.
“Water… water” I painfully shouted with my eyes fixed at hers.
She started walking on the top of sand dunes towards my right and stopped at the sand dune located just behind my back. I got a bit confused as she sat there but then I slowly walked and kneeled in front of her, begging for water.
She whispered something but I couldn’t hear, so I went a little closer to her. She unveiled her face. The dry desert wind failed to affect her soft moist lips which complemented her dark eyes. But the thing that left me curious was pyramid shaped three black dots on her chin. It felt as if I was being hypnotized by those three dots to find its meaning or maybe it was weariness affecting my mind.
“To realise the true value of water it is important for a person to roam hopeless in the desert” she slowly said.
“That’s totally my case” I said after thinking for a while.
“I hope you understand how tough it is to get water in the desert.”
“I agree, but I just need a little.”
“Every drop counts” she said.
“Please, I beg you.”
She stood up to leave and said, “Don’t worry you won’t die this soon.”
She rudely refused without showing any mercy. With head between my knees I started thinking of other ways to find water. With nothing striking my mind, I gave up and started following her once again. In the emptiness of the desert she was the only one who could give me some water to drink. I followed her footsteps and soon started walking behind her. She sensed me following her.
Without turning back she said “Drinking water will keep you alive for a while but it won’t take you out of the desert.”
“I don’t want to get out. I want to die here.”
“Then better stay thirsty. You will die in less than a week” she said.
“I can’t control it. I need to drink some water before dying” I replied.
She stopped and looked at me analysing my condition. After thinking for a while she broke the silence prevailing in the desert.
“You will have to answer my three questions, then only you will get water. “
And then she added a condition that she won’t stop walking until I have got answers to all her questions. With no choice left, I reluctantly agreed.
She was beautiful but her behaviour was suspicious. Her rude attitude might complement with a girl living in a city but for a village girl it was hard to digest. In order to know her better I also planned to ask her three questions. I discussed it with her and she agreed to answer my questions. This was the first time when she willingly accepted my demands.
I don’t know how she roped me in to walk in the heat of the sun despite my weakness. But for some reason I didn’t want to believe that she actually motivated me to follow her. Then she asked me first question.
“What brought you to the desert?”
“Death, mainly” I replied.
“Please elaborate, I’m in no hurry” she sarcastically showed curiosity.
I told her I used to be a reporter once, a respected one. I told her how bravely I covered riots and curfews that happen in most parts of our country and that I also received several awards for my work.
“I was doing fine until day before yesterday when I started watching few of my unedited footage. A woman was burnt alive in front of my eyes but all I did was press the recording button and tell myself not to panic. And when I closely looked at the videos, I saw hope in their eyes transforming into fear while I was busy recording the incident. Moments later they got killed in the curfew. I could have helped few of them by saving their lives but I never realized it then. The awards which once proudly occupied wooden wall of my house now appeared as hanging dead bodies. Overcome with hatred of my own existence, I decided to die a tragic death in the middle of the desert.”
After I ended up telling her about my past, rather than seeing hatred in her eyes for me, I saw sympathy.
“Don’t blame yourself for sins that others committed” she said in a comforting tone.
She was the only person who knew my true intentions of visiting the Thar Desert. The burden that my soul was carrying from past two days became a lot lighter after answering her first question. Concentration shifted from my aching body as I indulged deeper into self reclaiming thoughts and that made it easier for me to walk. It felt as if I was communicating with my inner voice.
Even though I was constantly thinking about my past and water, in the corner of my mind I was still confused about my missing gypsy. So instead of knowing her any better I asked my first question.
“Did you see a green gypsy anywhere in the desert?”
“It was engulfed in quicksand” she replied.
Seeing me confused she further added, “You might not know but you were lying very close to quicksand when I first saw you. You weren’t meant to die even though that is what you came for, or else you would have died sinking in quicksand. ”
As she told me this, I wasn’t able to figure out that whether I was lucky to survive or doomed to live. Her answer left me unsettled and inside my mind there was a constant battle between two thoughts – ‘to die or to get out of the desert’.
Every step she took was leaving a sign of her existence in the sand of the desert where no one lives except the barrenness of nature. With lowered head I walked behind her, filling her footprints with mine. I don’t know why I did so but it was deeply associated with existence. I didn’t want to leave anything behind in the desert, not even footprints.
While I was lost in my own thoughts she asked me second question.
“If you succeed in getting out of the desert, what will you do then?”
I stopped and questioned myself – how could she read my mind. She didn’t stop but rather continued to walk. I paced up to reach her and replied, “I don’t know.”
She didn’t say anything and neither did I.
I followed her trudging through the desert like a dog walking behind his master. Then I asked her my second question.
“What is your name?”
“You haven’t answered my second question yet” she replied. Knowing that she was right I didn’t insist her any further.
Couple of hours passed. Soon I got tired, my body started getting heavy and every step I took went deeper into the sand making it even more difficult to take it out. At times it crossed my mind to snatch the pot away from her but in that case the possibility of water getting spilled was high and I was in no state of taking risk. Moreover I didn’t want to disappoint her because I started liking her in an unusual way.
I struggled with every step and panted for breath. Due to lack of water my tongue became dry. I couldn’t even swallow my own saliva because there was none.
“I will stay alive” I said.
She stopped for the first time and looked at me. After a long silence I further added to answer her second question.
“Yes, I will live.”
She smiled and said, “My name is Afshan.”
“What does it mean?” I readily asked out of curiosity to which she replied “Is that really your third question?”
I smiled in disagreement and we resumed walking. For a moment my exhaustion evaporated but I didn’t know how long I had to walk.
The desert transformed into a surrealistic sphere as dusk approached. But still there was no sign of road or village or any human. I started getting worried now, mainly because now I had a desire to live and that was only possible if I succeed in getting out of the desert.
While climbing a steep sand dune she asked me third question.
“How will you make it out of the desert?”
“By following you” I answered.
“Third question wasn’t that tough to answer” she said. I smiled and so did she.
While she was easily walking up the slope with pot on her head, I struggled to climb this sand dune not only with my legs but by occasionally using my hands as well. After successfully making it to the top of sand dune I saw an unforgettable view. It was an oasis on which sun casted its reflection and trees surrounded it.
My eyes became wet. I tried to control it but couldn’t hold back my tears. The cause of tears rolling down from my eyes was not the beauty of oasis because it meant more than that for me – symbol of life.
I left Afshan behind and headed towards oasis to drink water. As I ran against the wind, tears from my face were wiped off to be lost into the air. After drinking enough water I washed my face and gently kept on stroking wet hands on my hair until they completely became wet. While I was relaxing near the oasis, Afshan slowly reached and sat behind me. I turned around and asked my third question which was well reserved until now.
“If you are already carrying water then why did you walk up to this oasis?”
“I am not carrying water. This pot is empty.”
I looked at her and raised my eye brows, implying her to elaborate.
“Had I told you this earlier you wouldn’t have made it this far. You walked continuously and didn’t give up because you had hope. Hope that water was around you and if things worsen then you will be saved. And you made it, not because of me, or your strength or any blessing but because of hope and the absence of fear.”
I carefully listened to every word she said and observed her closely as she sat behind me barefooted. Even after walking behind her for several kilometres I didn’t realise that she was barefoot, her dress was so long that it covered her feet. But her feet still appeared so soft as if she had been walking on bed of roses. I again started drinking water to quench my thirst.
“Aren’t you thirsty?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. I was waiting for her to say something but she didn’t. I turned around and then she replied “no more questions, three was the deal.”
Without uttering any word, I thanked her for giving me hope. I communicated with her by deeply looking into her eyes and I know she understood it.
Her village was nearby where I spent the night. The lonely desert where I came to die, inspired me to live and took off the burden of guilt that inflicted my mind. I badly wanted to know the story behind those three dots on her chin but I ran out of questions. But there is no denying that the best mysteries in this world are those which keep you amazed in the absence of answers and this was one such mystery.