Sonabeda was an unusual place. Situated high in the mountains, amidst desert country where only cacti and scrub grew, very few people actually preferred it as a summer destination. And Benny, found himself there much against his will. His parents were too busy in their research, attending conferences all over, and he was packed off to spend a few days with an old aunt who lived in Sonabeda. Not that Benny minded; he didn't go around with a long face, whining about the fact that his parents could never spare time for him, but he hoped he wouldn't really be bored. After all he knew nothing of the place; and he had been to countless hill stations, each one looking much the same as the other and for all his eleven years, Benny also knew that an old aunt could soon easily tire of having a restless, bored youngster getting in her way all the time.
He was driven up there by his parents, down a long winding road, flanked by low hills on all sides. Soon the hills dwindled in number and the greenery too gave place to a few clumps of trees, then straggly bushes and then the desert began. When they had passed miles of open country - mud colored, with the earth gaping open in places as it perspired in the sun, his father pointed to a low hill that appeared in the distant corner of their horizon. "That's Sonabeda," said his father, looking back at him, as if he suddenly realized the purpose of their long journey.
The hill kept up with them for the better part of an hour, and to Benny's impatient eyes, it still looked much the same as before. And then suddenly as they turned a corner of the road, he found it looming ahead of it, the trees on its neck, forming a garland of welcome. His aunt and someone else, who to Benny's great amusement, was even shorter than he was. He was dumpy, his open stomach falling in folds around him, and his lips were stretched into a smile that wrinkled up his eyes and flattened his nose. 'This is Gomba,' said his aunt, and Gomba's smile widened. Then he folded his hands and bent low, his stomach gently falling to the ground.
'He doesn't speak,' explained aunt to Benny and his parents, 'but as long as he is there, you can rest assured that Benny will be safe.'
'I don't need looking after,' was Benny's indignant response, but as usual they weren't listening to him, any more. So he looked around and saw Gomba, sitting with his haunches on the floor, staring up at him, still wearing that same old broad smile of welcome.
Benny stared back at him. He wasn't quite sure how they would converse, so he smiled tentatively back. Gomba smiled, this time he showed his gaping, teeth, chipped in several places. The smile broadened to reveal fleshy pink gums and Benny held his smile, he couldn't help but be amused by the little man. But soon he got tired of stretching his lips so wide, so he clamped them shut and then the genteel conversation all around him was broken by a peel of sudden laughter. It was Gomba, rolling on the floor, holding on to his stomach that was heaving tremulously like the waves of the ocean, oblivious to the fact that everyone except Benny's aunt, who must have been quite used to it all, was looking at him, open-mouthed in astonishment. He remained like that for several long moments and when he was done, Benny let out a yelp of surprise. For Gomba now stood ramrod straight before him before him, rid of his huge bulbous stomach and what Benny's father referred to as his spare tyres.
His aunt non-perturbed turned an impassive face towards Benny and said, "You will soon get used to his pranks.
He heard his father mumble under his breath, "I hope he will" before he rose to take his leave. And Gomba repeated his welcome routine with them - folding his hands and then prostrating himself full-length on the ground.
The next few days, they watched each other warily, as if sizing each other up for a possible friendship. The first morning, after breakfast, Benny decided he would go traipsing up the hills. So he armed himself with his binoculars and his sketchpad and drawing pencils when he felt someone tugging at his hand. He looked down and there was Gomba, looking up with a beseeching expression on his face. Benny didn't have the heart to tell him to buzz off, so together they sauntered down the gravel pebble -lined path that led out further up the mountain.
It was a narrow stretch of road, almost at the very edge of the mountain, so they had to walk single file, picking their way past the thorny hedges and the sharp stones that suddenly appeared in their path, glaring in the summer sun in a sinister way. Benny walked ahead and he knew from his merry whistle that Gomba was not far behind.
The summer sun that beat down in a steady shine forced him to concentrate on the road he was taking, so that he never knew when the whistle had died away. It was when he was on a particularly straight stretch of the road, that he first became aware of the silence all around him. The tuneless whistle had given way to a silent nothingness except for the harsh cawing of the lone crow and the patter of a stray dog that ran up the path and just as soon disappeared.
Benny looked back in impatience; he was going to tell Gomba to buck up, but the words stayed on the tip of his tongue, and his mouth opened in startled awe, for Gomba was slowly and steadily swelling up like a huge balloon. He watched astonished, a little scared, fearing that if Gomba persisted in showing off thus, he might burst. And then he heard a low chuckle, and then Gomba himself emerged from beneath the huge bubble that gently drifted up skywards.
He was still cackling as he drew up towards Benny, holding a long pipe in his hand. "Is this what you blow bubbles with" Benny asked a trifle dubiously. Why it looked no bigger than a pencil, and was as wide as his father's pipe. But Gomba nodded and pointing a finger at Benny and then at the pipe, he indicated that he should have a try as well.
'Well, okay,' said Benny and he held the pipe to his mouth. He then pursed up his lips as if he was about to fill a balloon with air. But Gomba snatched the pipe away impatiently and then he in gestures he explained - that the right way to go about blowing giant bubbles was to whistle through the pipe.
Benny didn't want to tell him that he hadn't practiced hard on his whistle enough - he was already far behind his classmates on that score, so he merely held out his hand for the pipe, saying, "Okay, I will have a go that way."
And screwing up his eyes in concentration, forcing his lips into a perfect circle, he held the pipe close to his lips. At first, he sputtered and then more carefully, he let out a sharp, low, tuneless whistle. The sound was so low, that Benny half feared that it wouldn't work, but he saw the bubble appear, smoking gently through the mouth and then every puff he made, it grew bigger and bigger. The bubble swelled up like a balloon, zooming over Benny's nose, filling up his entire space and then it grew bigger and heavier still.
It grew so big that Benny held on to the pipe with both hands, for he feared that the balloon would pull him away. And after some time, as it reached towards the treetops, Benny realized that the balloon had done just that. He glanced down, from the corner of his eye to see that he was airborne; his feet were no longer on the ground and that Gomba was smiling reassuringly at him.
The balloon climbed upward at a dizzying speed, and Benny held on to the pipe, praying desperately that he wouldn't fall off. Then to his wonder, he saw the balloon, now looking almost like a giant-sized moon, had ropes girdling it, holding it securely and he found he was seated on a comfortable swing like seat, that moved tremulously with every heave of the balloon. Now that he could safely let go the pipe, Benny settled down, in anticipation, wondering where the balloon was headed.
The earth below him was spinning away like a great top, and they were soaring in the sky, passing great clouds of swirling white, where the great eagles paused to gaze back at him in astonishment and somewhere far above he heard jet planes zooming by emitting their loud steady drone. He reached out to touch the passing clouds, and then just as he had grabbed hold of a fistful, the balloon swooped downwards and Benny found he could look right down - at people, who were scurrying around like ants, working on giant pyramidal buildings of stone. They moved in files, painstakingly moving up the giant building blocks, while a man, with an impressive turban and a finely woven cloak cracked the whip all around them, barking out orders in a strange language. Benny realized that he must be some kind of supervisor, or a great lord. Then as he moved nearer still, he found that the balloon was moving over the sandy white deserts, skirting the great pyramidal structures that towered over the men toiling all around it, and soon after the balloon was moving towards the river that moved serenely nearby.
They were now low enough for Benny to pass a hand through the fringes of the coconut palms when he realized that something strange was happening down below. The men working on the pyramids, the fishermen in their sailing boats, were all looking on with awe at the great balloon, as it hovered over them majestically in the sky. Then in unison, amidst a loud wailing, they prostrated themselves to the ground, with folded hands, thumping their heads to the ground over and over again in an appeal for forgiveness.
The man who was their supervisor was looking on as well, with an expression of contempt. He saw the men prostrate on the ground and cracked his whip. It was an order that they get back to work. But the men remained where they were, frozen in that gesture of obeisance towards the balloon. Benny wondered," do they think its some chariot of their gods?"
But he found he had little time to wonder, as the supervisor clapped his hands and from around the pyramids, and from all across the sandy wastes, from behind the sweeping sand dunes, emerged thousands of soldiers. The supervisor pointed up towards the balloon, and Benny heard him address the soldiers harshly, gesticulating with his hands, his face etched in anger. The soldiers in response to a command by their leader, arranged themselves into a battle formation. Then to Benny's consternation, he saw them rushing towards the balloon that was not really high up but hovering somewhere around the coconut palms. AT one shouted command from their leader, they raised the spears they had held hidden in their hands and then at the bark of another command, Benny saw to his alarm, a cloud of spears flying straight towards the balloon, intent on its destruction.
There was little he could do but hold on tightly to the ropes, hoping with his eyes closed for another miracle to happen. He waited thus for the inevitable to happen, but several moments passed and still Benny didn't hear the sound of the balloon bursting forth as it was struck by the brunt of a several thousand bursts. There was a prolonged silence, and it was only after some moments had elapsed that he opened first one eye then another.
He laughed in sheer relief as he saw that they were back amidst the clouds, the balloon drifting at a comfortable speed across the sky, buffeted by gentle winds.
Benny sat back to enjoy the ride. The gentle rhythm of the balloon, and the shushing of the wind made him drowsy, and he closed his eyes. He must have slept for a while, for he was awakened by the sound of children screaming below on the streets and loud bells ringing. He realized that it was the languorous clang of church bells sounding the hour. Looking down he saw children, excitedly gathered around the city square; there was much jostling and shoving as the shorter ones craned hard to get a better look at the balloon as it sailed past. Even older citizens had stopped short and were gazing up in awe. As Benny basked in the attention, lost in reverie, a thunderous shout floated across to him. It was in a language he could little understand, but from the tone, he knew it was one very angry man, who addressed him.
Looking around, he saw a man, standing by a window on the topmost floor of a tower that leant far too much to the right. Benny stared back, the thought first crossing his mind that the man must be mad, for the tower could topple over any moment. But the man continued gesticulating in anger. And then he held out for Benny to see what it was he held in his hand. Why it is a telescope - but the one in school is much finer. And he opened his mouth to say so.
But the man was having none of that. He shook his fist, pointed one thin, knobby finger at the telescope and then up towards the sky and Benny understood that the balloon had disturbed him in his observation of the heavens. There was little he could do, but smile apologetically. But the fierce expression remained glued on the other man's face. It remained there, until the balloon drifted slowly past the tower, down the square, over the gliding meadows until Benny looked back and was sure that they were well and truly out of sight.
For a long time, the balloon meandered across green meadows, broken up into perfectly cut square fields, broken by a few streams that traipsed through them. The men and women, and often the children would look up in excitement and run along for a brief while giving futile chase to the balloon. Benny reveled in their adulation, waving back like he had seen the heroes and superstars on TV.
He kept on waving and enthusiastically taking a bow each time he saw a big crowd gathered down below that it was quite some time before he realized that they were not staring up at him any more. He saw a boy, engrossed in the act of picking cherries, perched on the top of a ladder. Benny kept his smile fixed in place, his hand ready to raise a scout's salute but instead as the balloon swayed past, all the boy did was flicker a disdainful look upwards and then continue with his chore. Benny's hand fluttered in air midway and then slowly swung down. He then realized that he was no longer the center of anyone's attention. People would glance upwards as he sailed past, make an occasional remark to their companions, but there was that palpable lack of excitement, Benny had experienced earlier.
The reason for it soon became apparent. His ears caught a thunderous loud burst of applause, and the sounds of a bugle being solemnly blown told Benny that something momentous was happening somewhere near. Then to his utter astonishment, a magnificent caparisoned balloon, several times bigger than his own drifted into view. As it came nearer and still nearer, Benny saw that inside it sat a man and a dog, both of whom were looking on at Benny with ill-concealed animosity.
Benny would liked to stop and congratulate the man for the fine balloon he had, but barely had the man come within earshot, then he held out a fist in a menacing way and snarled, "How dare you travel here in a balloon? You must be a spy or an enemy - to have been able to copy my balloon, so perfectly?"
Benny was taken aback by the barrage of accusations. He opened his mouth to explain, but the man was having none of it. "I am Joseph Montgolfier, and today is the first launch of my balloon. I have worked long and hard over it and wont have anyone trespassing here."
Those words took Benny's breath away. Why, the man had cheek, - as if no one else but he could have a balloon and the effrontery to accuse him of having copying it. Benny never liked being bullied so he was determined to stand up to this man. So he held himself up as tall as he could be and announced grandly, " I have no intention of going away simply because you ask me to. I shall stay too to watch the fun."
The man heard this and his face contorted in fury. He snarled again," Young man, you are going to regret this." For greater effect, the dog next to him, an ungainly scruffy looking mongrel growled low and bared his teeth at Benny. Then to Benny's alarm, the man, still glowering at him, unsheathed his sword and held it high. Then he said in a voice, loud and clear enough to be heard for miles around, " I challenge you hereby to a duel - it's a fight to the finish, It's either my balloon or yours."
And without waiting for a response, he charged. Benny was taken totally unawares and he twisted the ropes on his balloon this way and that - desperate maneuvers to get his balloon out of the way of the sword, that glistened evilly in the sun as the other man in his balloon drifted slowly closer. As it moved nearer still, Benny realized there was little he could do, but wait for the sword to strike his balloon and deflate it with one cruel strike of its sharp blade. Then there was a strange cackling sound from below, followed by a shout, calling him by name, "Master Benny, Master Benny", but Benny didn't dare look down. Then he heard the cackle again and a voice came up to him, even more urgently and convincingly, "Lower your balloon, Master Benny, that way he can't strike you. Pull it by the ropes and it will come lower still."
It was the cackle that sounded oddly familiar and so reassuring that Benny unquestioningly did as he was told. He tugged on the ropes with all his might and prayed that somehow the intentions of that evil man would be thwarted. Soon he felt the balloon plummeting towards the ground as the air zoomed past them with a great whooshing sound. They were moving down at such an alarming speed, that Benny held on to the ropes for dear life.
He was unable to even look around much, for the wind whistled past, blowing his hair roughly across his face and over his face and Benny didn't dare remove his hands from the ropes to even brush his hair back into place. Instead he waited, his hands biting into the thin wiry ropes, his eyes closed tightly shut.
Then he felt a loud crack and the fluttering of wings as hundreds of birds, squeaking in alarm, rose in great flocks all around him. A few of them squawked and clucked at him, upset at his sudden intrusion, just when they had come home to roost. It took Benny several moments to realize that the balloon had come to its final rest right in the midst of a huge Peepul tree, just like the one in his aunt's huge backyard. He saw the balloon's once huge canopy gently resting on the topmost branches, then it slowly simmered and melted under the gaze of the setting sun, before it blew away like a bubble into the clouds.
He remained in the branches for a while, holding on to the pipe, watching the young nestlings fall asleep under their parents watchful gaze. And much later when the first star rose in the sky, did he slowly, one careful step at a time, climb below to the ground.
His aunt was at the oven, taking out a big tray of biscuits. Benny moved to help her. She turned around, saw him and said, smiling a big smile of welcome, "Ah there you are, Gomba said you might be late. I was beginning to worry."
Where's Gomba? He asked.
"He's gone down to the village. They are having a funny balloon mela there and he wanted to go. Funny fellow, likes getting into all such children's stuff'.
Benny was startled. Why he had been with Gomba in the morning, and then another thought struck him. He suddenly knew why the cackle had been so familiar, who it was who had shouted his advice up to him, then he heard his aunt's voice again'
"'that Gomba, but he has a heart of gold."
And Benny finally spoke," Did you know I heard him speak?"
It was his aunt's turn to look startled.