The staccato sound of rapid gun-fire broke the eerie silence. It was instantaneously responded to by another round of gun-fire as I crawled not daring to raise my head. I knew I was caught in an exchange of fire between the Indian and Pakistani armed forces. I had never seen or heard gun fire except in movies or documentaries. Confronted with it in real life, it was much scarier than I could imagine. A lot of wise and level-headed people had warned me not to undertake this trek because of the war looming on the horizon. But, of course, I had dismissed these ideas as ludicrous and had gone ahead with my plans. Crawling on the wet and cold grass, I now regretted my decision.
The thought of being caught in this exchange in Drass, a valley in the Himalayas, infamous for its cold, icy cross-winds, chilled me to the core. Several times, visions of childhood, parents and friends, flashed in front of me. But something inside said, ``NO, I can't die now ..... at least not here, not like this'. I knew I had a few miles to go to enter a relatively safe area. I inched forward carefully. The thought of wars had never excited me. However, this experience sickened me. ``Why do humans have to fight wars? Why can't we learn to love each other? Why can't we use our energies more constructively? Why? Why? Why?' A bullet whizzing past me brought me back from the realms of philosophy to reality. I was getting closer to what looked like a safe area. I was feeling stronger and more confident. This relaxed me a little. Suddenly, I heard a gun shot and before I realized what was happening, something pierced through the calf of my left leg. I shrieked in pain and panic - a bullet had actually hit me! Blood started gushing out through my pants. I thought I was going to die. I lay numb as I waited for my death.
A few seconds passed and I was still alive! Now the pain took over and I almost fainted. I gathered myself together and accepted the pain. I started thinking. I tore open the pants and exposed the wounded area. I took the shirt from my little bag and bandaged it tightly around the wound. That reduced the flow of blood. The gunfire meanwhile had stopped, and the sun began to go down. I felt I had a good chance to get to the nearest village about 4 miles away. Slowly, I climbed on to the dirt trail which led to the village. To take every step, I had to fight the pain. The progress was extremely slow, and I tried not to think of how much farther I had to go. I was thinking only a step ahead. I must have gone on for about half an hour (even though it seemed much longer) when I felt I had exhausted the last reservoirs of my energy. As soon as my determination started to falter, my body gave in. I collapsed to the ground. I lay there motionless. There was no way I could muster energy to take even one step more. The temperature was dropping fast as the sun dipped below the horizon. A feeling of hopelessness took over.
As I lay in such a state, I saw this little red bird with exquisite feathers and a beautiful beak, lying lifeless a few feet away from me. The cold wind was blowing away the bird's feathers. I felt like crying, thinking that this would be my state a few hours from now. There was no way I could survive. I started preparing mentally for my death. As I looked up to the sky, from the periphery of my vision I noticed a little movement in the area where the bird was. I could swear that the bird had moved. But then I rationalized that it was either the wind or a figment of my imagination. But as this thought crossed my mind, I again saw a little movement. Overcome by curiosity, I rolled over to investigate the bird. Even before I could put my hands on the bird, it opened its eye. Our eyes met. A sheer surge of joy moved from the tip of my backbone to the top of my head. I was in a daze. A few seconds later, when I came out of it, I noticed that the bird was back in its stone-like state. I rushed forward and was relieved to find that its heart was beating. I carefully picked the bird and slid it into the inside pocket of my jacket. I could feel its erratic heart beat against my chest. Something inside told me that I could still make it to the village. I felt rejuvenated.
I focused all my energy and got up. I moved along on the trail and marveled at the joy the bird had brought me. Every heartbeat of that little bird moved me a step ahead. I was walking as if in a state of trance. Every time the numbness from cold and pain would start to take over, this `chotu' (little one) would flutter or squeak, sending a surge of energy through me to help me move. I must have hobbled along for a long time, because I began to see the flickering lights of the village. I knew I had very little strength left, but maybe I had just enough to get me there. I urged myself on -``I have been able to walk all this distance and I cannot give up now!' The lights were getting clearer. I could hear some voices now. I remember struggling to reach the doorstep of the first hut on the outskirts of the village. There was much commotion in the house on seeing a stranger in this state. I was put on the bed. I took out my little companion carefully and handed it to the lady of the house and mumbled something about taking care of the bird. As everybody crowded over to see my wound, I looked over my shoulder to see where `chotu' was. I saw the old granny of the family stroking its back. Realizing that it was in safe hands, I smiled and passed out.
Next day, I was woken up by the morning sun. I looked around to figure out where I was. The severe pain in my leg brought back all the memories. Hearing my movement, the well-dressed man sleeping in the chair next tome woke up. We exchanged a smile, as he introduced himself as an army doctor from the nearby military camp. He assured me that I would be fine, but that I needed to be taken to a hospital, as soon as possible. I cut short his explanations by wanting to know where the bird was. ``The bird is doing fine, in fact much healthier than you,' he said. He shouted to somebody, asking for the bird to be brought to the room. The old granny walked in with a vegetable basket, in which lay `chotu', wrapped around in a warm cloth sleeping peacefully. The granny said that the bird's wings were wounded. ``But it will be fine,' she said in a confident and reassuring tone. As I continued to gaze at the bird, the doctor was curious about my concern for the bird, especially since throughout the night I had been muttering `chotu! chotu!' I narrated to him the whole incident, expecting to see realization dawn on his face. In a carefully measured tone he said, ``I am amazed at your pity and benevolence which gave you the energy and the strength to do this superhuman act.' I smiled, thinking how far he was from the truth. I looked at my little friend.
Suddenly it opened its eyes. Everything else became non-existent. The voice of the doctor shouting instructions for somebody to take me to the hospital faded away. `Chotu' and I transcended to a plane of existence beyond the realms of sympathy and pity. We were elevated to a union in pure joy and ecstasy.
Wherever life embraces itself, vibrates in the thrill of spontaneous love, sharing and caring, and merges in the ecstasy of union, Gurukul is experienced.