The Greek tragedy in three parts, the Ramayana and its quest for a man’s truth, Beowulf and facing the dangers man cannot comprehend.

The hero’s journey is a yearning expressed in all cultures. In the stories we knit and the ballads we sing. A yearning, because they are probably untrue, at least in part. And approaching these stories — that we too often scoff at today as superstition — as such, paves the way for us to understand more about who we really are, and our place.

It is a yearning that is independent of the time or Romance of the age, as I discovered myself trying to recreate it, to find meaning I had lost. It was up in the hills.

These hills have spoken to humans for centuries. Blue and endless, they stretch from the southern tip of Kerala to the neck of Maharashtra. Where the ancient Vindhyas end, the Ghats start, as if borne of their efforts to create something larger than themselves. Or perhaps that’s me trying to ascribe human meaning onto a great natural process that has carried on unabated for millions of years. Probably that.

I’d packed sparsely and taken the bus into the cardamom plantations, away from the town. Taking my usual lodgings at the old converted pepper mill, I did little that evening except a little reading. Few local faces recognised me — probably because I’ve grown a bit since my last visit a couple of years ago — and the ones who did I was glad our interaction ended with a smile of recognition and a few courtesies. I packed in for an early night. Ha, said the Insomnia. You cannot seriously expect to run away from this that easily — you brought this upon yourself, after all. An early night morphed into a late night, like they usually do.

The foothills are densely packed by deciduous populations of teak that have settled down in the cup of overlapping hills. Protected largely from harsh rain and bitter sun, these trees grow tall and nurture ecosystems within. This is a land that once harboured aplenty those two most emblematic Indian animals — the Tiger and the Elephant.

The trees cover much of my line of sight, but through the gaps the hills speak. They beckon and mock; at once taunting and welcoming. When the early hours of the morning sun hit the hills at just the right angle — Light drips down from the peaks and percolates through tree-filled area. A warm wave of yellow washes over the hill flattering its curves, while the covers are slightly withdrawn, undressing its beauty. Other times it can seem cold and discomfiting. The grey of rainclouds weaves in with its blue covering to create a shade that makes it distant and far from understanding.

Today was one of those days. It was half past six but the sun was not out. A low mist hung in between the canopy, filling the air underneath with a wet, bone-chilling quality. As it usually did this late in October, the retreating monsoon had been leaving rain-soaked evenings in its wake. A fitful night in a sleeping bag leads to a groggy morning, and this was no exception. I suspect the anticoagulants injected by leeches also have a hallucinatory effect (multiple bites sustained by walking unwisely through the undergrowth in slippers) — dreaming of a giant leech creeping up on you while you sleep can’t help matters much. My mind was in a haze and my body cried out for rest but I’d promised myself I’d wake up early and walk. The one thing giving me purpose in another morning that felt pointless.

Pilgrimages should be approached with a certain level of sanctity. I think the mistake most pilgrims make is that they spend their journey in a worried/annoyed/expectant funk, and the end result then underwhelms. A shrine is nothing more than the value we ascribe to it, emotionally and physically. My pilgrimage was to a little grove in the woods where the sun burst in through branches, leaves and spider-webs. It gave the spot an unnatural aesthetic beauty on my last visit, giving me immense joy on having discovered it. We go back to things that have worked before because it gives hope. Stories of a saint’s toenail having cured disease and an Amazon review of These Headphones being Stupendous and the One You Must Buy, appear one and the same.

I trudged through the muddy path, inlaid with rocks, in search of the spot. The first stage of the hero’s journey is the Arduous Trek.

thoughts, like most of the time, were centred around myself. The primary thought was how as I had grown out of childhood, I’d progressively begun losing the joie de vivre of seeing excitement in everything. This, ironically, while I noted but dismissed the melodies of the morning birds — flitting through the canopy, zipping through branches, divebombing the shady cardamom leaves — they create an irreplaceable, interlinking melody, but the Billboard Hot 100 shuffles on in the iPods of our minds. I sometimes think subjecting myself to induced hardship is a symptom of guilt. Guilt of not having faced real problems to get to where I am, guilt of constant societal praise of empty achievement, guilt of middle-class privilege. This ‘hero’s journey’ could not be more dissimilar from those of yore.

Complex thoughts and narratives battled for attention in my mind while I walked, when it was all quite simple. The path twisted on, flanked on both sides by towering trees, hugging the gradient of the cliff. After a certain point, electric fencing appeared on one side. Propped up recently to protect the fragile cardamom plants from displaced elephants, in vain I later learnt. Newly built sheds popped up every several hundred meters as evidence of new human activity. A disease of stony concrete rashes and aluminium blisters. Cardamom prices were at a record high, landslide and rain hit crop yields at a seasonal low. My mind seemed to be revelling in grim irony.

I reached a fork. I’d thought myself lost — forgetting the directions seemed another by-product of maturing disillusionment. But no, this was the one. The terrain had changed slightly, probably due to last year’s floods. A fallen tree partially blocked the narrow path cutting off to the left, but I was still thin enough to wriggle past it. By this point the sun had been nagged enough to creep out from behind the clouds, and the entire forest was lit up quite splendidly. Each colour of green and brown and orange had been dialled up a point or two in beauty. Sunlight dripped down the trees along with the creepers, and gave the lowly weeds and wildflowers a regal air, as if they were the ones meant to be there all along.

I reached the grove. My sacred shrine was also duly marked off for logging, and several trees were missing. I reached the tree where I had sat the last time and as the pilgrim is promised, I was promptly underwhelmed. In search of meaning, it seemed like this place had none. But the weather was great, and the morning peaceful. Nature is enough to calm even the most frazzled Millennial brain. I settled down in the natural hollow cove of a large tree to breathe and try to meditate.

After a perilous journey through a difficult terrain, filled with minor obstacles, the hero faces his biggest challenge. A beast or monster, that will test him to his limits, all alone. In the best stories, this isn’t so black and white — a clear cut Good and Evil is a concept we invent to soothe our conscience.

After about 7 minutes at best of closing my eyes, I opened them to see it approaching. What would be for me, the Beast. Raised eyebrows and a sigh — it was a snail. Not even one of the large ones, like the hellish Giant African Snail that wreaked havoc over crop populations in Kerala, in recent years. ‘Maybe not the Chimera, but am I not worth at least a raging elephant or a wild boar?’, a peeved ego seemed to question the universe.

My habitual urban sympathy for the snail kicked in at this point. I’m used to picking them up gingerly by the shell and relocating them to the grassy patch on the other side, free from getting wilfully run over by great black spinning rings of death. Used to playing the role of the human who is in his element, in control, the overseer and benign benefactor to other creatures. I realised then though, that it was probably me that needed the taking care of, far from the urban snow globes where we live out our inflated senses of self-importance. The snail watching with concern on his way home, looking out to see if the ungainly mis-evolved creature was alright. Yet he found himself sailing through the air and onto a neighbouring plant a metre away. My beast was not the snail.

A prick on my lower back. Another fucking leech, god dammit. I yanked it off and flicked it away.

Once he has bested the challenge of the monster, by exercising his faculties, mental or physical, the hero often faces a dilemma. Is what he has done truly right? Or was it in fact necessary, and befitting the situation and his place in the world. He thinks a little about his place in the world. Humans are about action. Being given a course of action to follow frees us from the agony of eternal thought roiling inside of us, especially when we know and experience so little about the world. It’s why millions of us are more than happy to be told to perform a list of tasks in our tetragonal concrete structures, if we see something at the end to show for it. The hero seizes on a course of action, decides he’ll make changes to his life. Be kinder, calmer, happier; exercise regularly so his body feeds good feeling to his mind; sleep on time, cut down on caffeine; go to classes regularly and bunk fewer classes. Accomplish his goals, and be better. The Enlightenment

The enlightenment is what I believe differentiates those of substance. The great people we tell stories of, and build myths around. Every single person encounters moments where they achieve a realisation. The scale of these realisations differs, their contents differ, the courses of action they lead us to differ. Great violence or great peace. Scientific breakthrough or choice of breakfast cereal. A decision with consequences, or one so mundane it wouldn’t have mad much difference in the larger scheme of things, had it not been taken.

Filled with vigour, the hero is then taken by some sort of express route, swiftly back to the place where the plot demands he’s clearly supposed to be. This has always amused me. A godforsaken location deep in the desert/jungle/ocean/depths of space that took an obscenely long amount of time to get to, has an alternate route back by which the hero cuts his travel time by an order of three. Considering the general nature of a means of travel, i.e. that it is a two-way thoroughfare, one wonders why the hero didn’t just take it in the firs… Hush. The plot demands it. A convenient plot device, truly.

Equipping myself with the swift-return-to-scene-of-battle device, I take the shorter way back to the house (the path had started to loop around, in a way doubling back on itself parallelly). There has been a reason I’ve referred to the hero in question as male — not only because I draw parallels to myself or that historically (almost) all stories and legends were of glorified male heroes.

Tying into the concept of crafting for ourselves, through the centuries and civilisations, such myths, it seems that the Hero’s Journey has a significant role in male identity. The ideals men seek in themselves, and to display outwardly, as well as the values that give their lives meaning. Masculinity as a concept is something that may need a keen looking at in modern times. Much of the societal structures that gave it shape, problematic though they may have been, are dissolving — decried for being at toxic at one end, and dismissed as being overtly conservative or archaic at the other, lack of meaning and understanding about what their lives are for is a disease of the 21st century man.

The very last dramatic act of my journey is the Rebirth. I walk up the steps that lead from within the cardamom leaves up to the old house. Everyone is up and the plantation workers have already left for work, but I choose to delay my breakfast a little longer and climb up to my room, in the hope that it’ll still be there when I’m done. Hot scrambled eggs and buttered toast are tempting, but I must complete my quest. Heroes are ‘reborn’ in many different, symbolic ways. Passing through flames, and emerging from the ashes. Submerged in a poisonous river of acid and emerging invincible. Return from the jungle of a 12-year exile. I chose to go old-fashioned and brought the rickety metal bucket downstairs. The wood-fired stove sputtered a bit but hoarsely began functioning. I left the water on till it was as much heat as I thought my skin could take.

Physical exertion and suffering have always been key to male and indeed human identity. It is often said that the human body is older and knows more than the mind, with good reason. The identities we can craft for ourselves mentally aren’t near as vivid as physical experience, and the kind of learnings we feel through our bodies. Martial arts, Yoga and the plethora of ancient activities placed physical activity on a pedestal with mental exertion and creative expression.

I let the water run down my body. I gasp a little; my muscles tense and then relax as the water flows from neck to chest, to torso to pelvis, to thigh to feet; steam billows out from my skin a turbulent white cloud. I emerge from the cloud. My footsteps leave prints on the floor, like the coming of a destiny to be fulfilled. I feel stronger and calmer. The hair falling down to my eyes, the eyes that stared back confidently, a curtain of brown steel. Both seemed unlike they were when I got onto the bus to leave a couple of days earlier. I towelled myself off, slipped on a t-shirt and shorts and went down to slightly cold scrambled egg and droopy toast. Footsteps echoed like drum beats on the wooden stairway.

Student at IIT Kharagpur. Searching for the beautiful stories, the ones that make lives — and writing my own.