The desert sands can do strange things to a person. The grains burrow deep into your skin to lend your face a timeless quality. The old man squatting opposite us was around ninety, but he looked older than anyone I had ever seen. Underneath a pair of bushy eyebrows, his eyes still retained sparks of a long forgotten fire.
We were in the middle of the Great Indian Desert, listening to a story being spun by the village great grandfather. We perched on a colourful mat in the courtyard, right outside a cluster of huts which belonged to his extended family. I leant against a mud wall, trying to keep the scorching sun out of my eyes.
When he started speaking, we could barely hear his voice at first. Then slowly, we got used to the ragged, whispery tone that he spoke in. He told us of the times when India had still been under the British Empire. Stories which don’t make it to the history textbooks.
“We never had enough water in those days. There was only one well, many kilometres away. People would walk there and stand in queue for hours on end. Hundreds of thirsty men and women gathered there for water, not just for themselves but also for their families. “
In the distance, I could hear a faint sound of the winds blowing over the sands. If you close your eyes and think hard enough, it will remind you of the sea at night. Sounds of water rushing over sand.
He went on.
“Each person was allowed one pitcher of water for the entire family. We walked for hours back and forth in the burning sun. You couldn’t even leave your place in the queue for a while because someone else would seize your place. “
I stared into his face. It looked like an ancient parchment, wrinkled and frail.
“Do you know the thorns that stick to your clothes and prick your feet as you walk on the sands?”
We grimaced. Of course we did, those annoying little burrs were a constant bother. We would spend hours picking them off our clothes and feet.
“If you look closely, you will see that each thorn has a little grain inside. We used to go hungry for days on end and these grains kept us alive. “
I think he spoke in an alien tongue that day. Survival at such a primal level dealt a heavy blow to my urban naiveté. It took a long time for my mind to wrap itself around what he was saying.
“Those days were long and hard. But I am happy now. “
I took my eyes off this living storybook and looked at the hut he was leaning against. It was soot blackened and looked rather battle weary.
Feeling guilty would be cliché. However, I had an odd feeling that being a hero was probably the last thing on his mind. The sands do that to you.