The Treasure Hunt
The Treasure Hunt16 mins 661 16 mins 661
Aprajita looked outside the glass pane. Her eyes squinted at the swaying branches of the silver oak trees in a rainy foreground. It was early evening and the clouds were forcing the sun to hide behind layers of their shadow, readying the night sky for early onset. It didn’t feel like a May day. She had reached Coorg only that very afternoon from Bangalore, having driven her father’s Jeep for eight long hours on muddy patches and across fifteen degrees temperature.
The winds had become fierce on the way itself after she had crossed Mysore, but what she was now seeing and hearing outside, was a fierce storm. A storm outside her window trying to overpower the one inside her heart.
She got up from the rocking chair abruptly. The chair jangled a bit before finally reaching its steady state. It was at least twenty years old bought around her birth year in 1960. Aprajita looked at her fingers – they were trembling and shaky like her spirits. Maybe a cup of coffee would calm her down, she hoped. The kitchen was at the backend of the chalet overlooking a small creek which was now gushing because of the last hour’s downpour. The coffee filter had not been used for the past few months. She cleaned the filter, assembled it again and sprinkled the Coorg coffee on the filter paper. A few minutes later the kitchen was filled with the strong and heady aroma of coffee and the decoction dropped slowly in the collector. This had always been her favourite part – the taste buds getting ready in anticipation. But, today, the anticipation was overshadowed by her tense nerves.
She wondered remorsefully if her life would ever be back to normal. From where she stood, her future looked unclear unless she could solve the mystery. The secret that her dear family might have been holding very close to their heart and not giving even a glimpse of it to her. Her father knew something about her mother that Aprajita was not aware of. Every time she mentioned the night of the treasure hunt, he went mum, as if it anaesthetized him. For the past two years, this has carried on.
Aprajita was eighteen when she had last seen her mother in this very house on her birthday – that fateful day. The day that had dawned after so many agonizing months of threats to their family and attempts at being terrorized by her mother’s enemies. It was a day meant to be special and full of happiness as the police had arrested a few suspects. But the day had turned out to be a nightmare. Her mother had just disappeared into the thin air while playing treasure hunt which she had so enthusiastically put together as a surprise for Aprajita.
Aprajita’ s life was never the same again – she was closest to her mother, with her father mostly on tours. She was totally shattered after losing her. There were search teams sent around for days but they didn’t find anything. Lush forests and thick vegetation covering the hills beyond the creek behind the chalet had made the search activity not very rewarding. Aprajita had last seen her mother going to the backyard to help her with the last clue for the treasure hunt. You are the birthday girl and you should win – were her mother’s last words to Aprajita, without any hesitation that she would be cheating in the game. Her mother adored her – more than any anybody else, sometimes even more than Aprajita’ s elder brother, Ashish.
For the months that followed, Aprajita’ s family, including her, had turned every bit of the house upside down looking for any clues leading towards her mother’s whereabouts. There was no other door or secret passageway – just one last treasure hunt clue which said –
“I jump up and down, sometimes calmly
and sometimes threatening the town!”
The clue was about the creek for sure, but it didn’t help much as it stopped at the creek.
Aprajita looked at the unmaintained backyard through the kitchen door – there were bushes growing everywhere, long grass and weeds merging with the hedge. She was sure there would be reptiles dwelling – it needed tending. Nobody had stepped into it for the past one year. In fact, her father had not visited the place since the tragedy. Only she and her brother visited every few months in remembrance of their mother. The visits were always short and difficult. She felt strange here – near to her childhood but with pain in her heart which was almost as if somebody was squeezing it mercilessly. How could a person so full of life just become silent without a forewarning?
And today, she had a fierce fight with her father who was planning to sell the property and remarry some colleague of his. She had jolted out of Bangalore into this safe haven. She could never let this place go. This was the nearest she could get to her mother. Her mother was a successful writer and an activist fighting against the exploitation of the coffee workers by the owners. This was her place where she would lock herself for days and days and emerge only after finishing a book or a mystery story or finding a probable solution to the peasants’ problems. Riddles and mysteries were her favourites.
Aprajita tossed in her bed for most of the night before finally waking up at the crack of the dawn. Her head was pounding. She remembered that she had missed dinner and had just filled her stomach with two cups of coffee. She had a long day ahead as she planned to restock the kitchen and also talk to the local gardener to trim the growth in the garden. She even planned to put a few seeds for an organic garden. And with all these thoughts she closed her eyes for a nap which transformed into a deep sleep. Her sleep was disturbed by the shock of hearing a loud bell which made her spring out of the bed.
“Hello, Sis!” – it was Ashish, her elder brother, as she pulled the door wide open. Behind him was Sushmita, his could-be girlfriend, and Sushil, her best friend holding Snoopy, their dog.
“What the hell are you guys doing here?” Aprajita was not expecting company and she was a bit irritated by the sudden intrusion.
“Same goes for you,” Ashish answered. “It’s your birthday next week – and we were planning a big one for your 21st. Looks like we will have to shift the venue here” he announced as he looked around at the dusty place. “But before that, a lot of work needs to be done!”
With this declaration, they all settled in the living room. Aprajita shared her plans for making the place a bit liveable. She wanted to spend the next two months before her post-graduate course would start and she would be shipped off to London, far away from her favourite place.
It was not difficult to find a gardener as people were mainly into the plantation in Coorg and able to tend to nature was a gifted quality which every Coorgi possessed. Aprajita herself wanted to be an agriculturist someday and her post-graduation in horticulture would add to her credentials.
Harish, the gardener, arrived in the early hours that day, to take advantage of the full day ahead. He cut long blades of wild grass and trimmed the jackfruit and lemon trees. The garden looked as if it had got a military cut. One corner especially had too much vegetation and all of them pitched in to expedite the work. As Harish hurried to dig the whole place, the shovel hit something concrete. He removed the grass and the leaves into the other heap and slowly worked with the shovel lest it was a pipe which could then cause plumbing problems. But slowly it revealed to be the rim of a well or a big ditch. He made his way along with the concrete bricks and it went into a circle. They then removed the plants from the center which led to a few broken stairs to the trough of a tiny dried-up well. Aprajita and Ashish slowly climbed down and the gardener diligently and speedily worked to clear the floor of the well of all the extra growth.
“Do you remember mother having a well in her compound?” Aprajita asked her brother in surprise. Her brother told that all he remembered was this area was always covered with vegetation.
“This must have been a very old well topped with mud and debris decades ago” – the gardener informed.
As he dug further, the mud was tender enough to give his shovel an easy way into the bottom of the well. There was an overgrowth of plants around the edges of the wall but the center part was clear, where a small heavy metal box with a big lock stood. The gardener snapped it open with his shovel. They opened it carefully to find a piece of paper carefully folded with a dull yellow crease at each of its fold. It was a bit damp as Aprajita slowly unfolded it. There in the clearest of handwritings was written –
“May not be the truth that meets the eye…
Look beyond the obvious, think like a spy”
“What does it even mean?” Aprajita was frustrated and tired. All the digging and it was just a piece of paper. Was somebody playing a prank on them?
“Who would have put this here?” – she said in an exasperated voice.
“If we link it to the first clue, it means something around the creek which is obvious, but we need to look beyond it” – Ashish said as they came out of the well in the open. Aprajita heaved a sigh of relief on stepping out, even though her thoughts were far from relieved. Where did all the clues lead to? She thought. Is there any treasure at the end of it – as they had heard stories from the locals years back?
They packed up for the day while the riddles did circles in Aprajita’s mind keeping her awake most of the night. She kept on ambling up and down the garden in the full moonlight. Finally, her legs forced her to lie down on the couch in the veranda and her mother’s soft whispers reciting the puzzles rocked her to sleep.
Aprajita was woken up by the cawing of the neighbor’s rooster in the early hours of the morning. The first rays of the sun touched the forest and the view left her spellbound. She had never noticed the beauty of the thick vegetation – nobody used to venture through the woods across the stream as the locals believed that once anybody stepped into the forest, the ghosts of the past peasants tormented by the rich would allure the people into the thick forests, finally feeding on human blood.
‘If I am a spy, irrespective of any scary fables, I will not hesitate to go into the jungle’ Aprajita said to herself. She knew that the clue wanted them to go beyond the creek, beyond the obvious and into the jungle.
It was at least worth a try for her mother’s sake.
Aprajita, Ashish and their friends started towards the dangerous territories right after the early morning meal, so that they had a few hours before they could return.
“I have kept torches if we get stuck for the night” Aprajita mentioned.
“We will be killed by wolves and reptiles rather than darkness” Ashish was worried. This was silly – it might be a prank or a trap and they were unnecessarily taking the risk. But Aprajita was adamant and nobody could convince her.
Once they entered the jungle, the hill slope became treacherous. It was a strenuous climb up straining their limbs.
“Only a few steps and we will reach the wayward side of the hill.” – Aprajita tried to encourage everybody even though her knees cried under the pressure of making the steep ascend.
Reaching the top took most of the day – the long grass pierced their skin like daggers and they were sure that scores of leeches were happily sucking their blood.
“Can we go back? We can come again tomorrow. I can hear the clouds. If it rains, we are trapped. What if there is a deluge or a landslide?” Sushmita was near to giving up. The place was famous for its dangerous terrain and any sane person would head back. But Aprajita could only think about her mother – it was as if there really were ghosts, drawing her towards the heart of the jungle.
“Let us just go a few steps to the top. Then I promise we will think of going back” Aprajita pleaded.
Once they reached the top, they couldn’t believe their luck. The vegetation had drastically thinned, and they could even see a trail leading to somewhere. This increased their speed and enthusiasm and they walked along the river towards a clearing that had a small temple. The temple was more like a cave and it looked hundreds of years old. It had a small entrance which led to a flat open to sky space with hundreds of intricately carved miniature idols adorning the walls as if watching the central area where a beautiful Shiva idol sat peacefully. The idol was cracked and run down at the edges but still looked powerful in its entirety.
“I have never seen anything so beautiful” Aprajita opened her eyes wide open with surprise.
“It is breathtakingly serene – worth the effort and the number of leeches in my boots,” Sushmita commented as she bent to remove a few of the bloodsuckers crawling up her leg.
“Yes, my adventurous bones were put into action after such a long time” Ashish concurred as well after the initial doubts.
“Now where do we go next?” Sushil asked as it was about to get dark.
“Shall we take refuge for the night here?” Ashish suggested. Everybody thought that was the most logical thing to do.
The night was unusual. They took turns to sleep watching for any wild animals – it was also difficult for all of them to cram up in the cave temple all at one time. The forest was full of strange noises – of crickets, owls and a wild animal or two at small intervals as if an orchestra was being played by all the creatures to welcome the humans in their abode.
Finally, morning came and Aprajita opened her small dabba for some eatables and bananas. This would fill them till afternoon. They had packed supplies for at least two days.
“What is the plan now?” Sushmita asked. “Till where do we go?”
Aprajita was also perplexed. She wanted to go with her intuition and suggested that they look for a clue in the temple. Though everybody thought there stood a very slight chance of them finding anything in the half-dilapidated temple – but it was worth a try after all they had walked miles before reaching this place.
They looked on the walls around the engravings, in the nooks and dark corners of the cave temple but apart from a few spiders and invertebrates, they couldn’t find much.
“There is no clue here. It’s a dead end. Let us head back” – Aprajita had given up.
Though disappointed, everybody agreed and stepped out of the narrow opening of the cave which would have had a door attached earlier but all that remained now was the frame. Ashish being the tallest of all, hit his head at the top of the frame.
“Why don’t you bend a little, bhai?” Aprajita said concerned. She didn’t want anybody hurt on this mis-adventure of hers.
“There is something poking out here. It’s not my fault” Ashish touched the curved hook suspended from the frame of the door, irritated, and pulled it down. It opened like a vertical drawer and a piece of thin wood, as thin as a paper, flew out of it.
Aprajita picked it up and read the engravings.
“Gods are with you, even in the wilds
Treasure is waiting, just a couple of miles”
“We shouldn’t go back!” Aprajita cheered. “We are nearly there!!”
The next couple of miles led them nowhere.
“This was certainly a prank!” Sushmita said as she sat on a rock after a brisk walk for the last two miles or so.
“It can’t be…All these clues match my mother’s handwriting. She wouldn’t have played a joke on me” Aprajita’s voice wavered just talking about her mother.
They decided to look around as they had the whole day to trace their path back.
“There is absolutely nothing here. We must head back. It would be a long journey.” Sushil tried to put some sense in his friends.
“Hmm…You are right. It would be long – especially when you feel discouraged and disheartened” – Ashish looked at the tall trees forming a beautiful canopy on top of them. In the last two days he had fallen in love with this wilderness – treasure or no treasure the journey itself would form a cherished memory, he thought.
Sushmita consoled Aprajita as she sat next to her on the rock. Aprajita shook her head trying to contain her disappointment. Why were the clues there if they led them nowhere – she was looking for answers.
Aprajita glanced at the pebbles around – it looked like a dried stream bed, which was quite odd with the amount of rain in this region. She stared at the pebbles, her mind dried up of ideas on what to do next – there were no more clues and they had reached nowhere. All the hopes had died a silent death and life would be back to its odd self.
“Look, I found some footsteps” Sushil shouted pointing to a few going towards a big rock covered with bushes and dried branches.
Gayatri Devi had been staying in the jungles, here and there, for the last two years since she had decided to abandon her dear family. A tough decision – a choice between being just a mother of two or a saviour of many in need – and she had chosen the latter. The landlords had been exploiting the coffee workers with meagre salary and bad working conditions for years forcing them to quit their works and starve of hunger. The police were practically non-effective in these areas as none of the villagers were ready to complain with the fear of getting banished without a livelihood. For years Gayatri Devi had tried to fight for a better compensation and life for them, shuttling between Bangalore and Coorg. But it was becoming riskier day by day with threats from the rich coffee plantation owners. They didn’t want an outsider telling them what to do. And then on her daughter’s bday, she had received threat that their kids would be abducted if she didn’t give up immediately and this was after a few suspects were taken into custody. She knew it was time for her to give up – give up her family for some time to protect them and the poor farmers. This was the best solution she could think of in those few minutes of decision.
And she did so – not certain whether it was right or not – but she left her family as she worked for a greater cause. The next two years were a revelation – she was more effective when in the hiding – gradually motivating, educating and strengthening the coffee workers and farmers, disguising and living with them, being one of them. No worries of threats as everybody had thought she had absconded because she was scared. And as she was no longer with her family, she knew they would be safe and sound, lapped in the luxuries of life which were so easily taken for granted. Slowly with relentless efforts and luckily with changing the political situations as well, things became better.
And now, it was time for her to continue the work with her family by her side. And that’s when she had finally contacted her husband – writing a long letter explaining her side of the story and urging him to make Aprajita arrive at their Coorg house. She had put the clues in the different places – the places which she had trodden upon during her quest for a greater meaning in life. She wanted her kids and especially her dear daughter to experience the restlessness of seeking something desperately. She wanted her to understand the awe and the solidity of nature – threatening at times and nurturing at others – the treasure of this knowledge which her kids would carry with them for the rest of their lives. This had to be another step of they growing up and outside of their sheltered cocoons.
And today, this very moment, as Gayatri Devi, looked fondly at Aprajita, from behind the trees, staring at the footprints, tears trickled down her cheeks. Her steps slowly moved towards her kids, ready to embrace them finally after the long exile – her treasure was waiting to be fetched after their treasure hunt.