Anita looked out of the window. The day had started sunny and bright. But now, the sky was filled with burgeoning black clouds. It had been raining relentlessly for the past few hours. While rainfall was common throughout the year in Meghalaya, heavy downpour at this time was unusual.
Anita’s forehead creased with worry. Lumlang hadn’t returned home yet. Occasionally, he liked to play football with his friends, after school. He must be with them; she would message Michael’s mother to check.
As if on cue, her phone beeped. It was the very person she had intended to call.
“Kumno! I’m worried. Michael and my younger son James aren’t back yet. My niece Rita tells me that Lumlang and my sons went to explore Krem Jingbuhrieh.”
Krem Jingbuhrieh? The caves? In this storm?
The children of the village often frequented the dark caverns of Jingbuhrieh in pursuit of adventure. It was almost a rite of passage for them. But in such stormy weather, the cave passageways would flood in no time.
Lightning flashed outside, filling her with dread.
Three Hours Earlier
The four boys parked their cycles at the entrance of the cave. The weather had been warm all week, and it was the perfect day to explore.
“Bah, thank you for bringing us here!” James gushed.
When James heard that Michael and his friend Lumlang were going to explore the caves, he had begged to tag along. After incessant pleading, Michael gave in. He even permitted James to bring along his friend, Marak. James suspected that Michael had agreed only because he hoped the younger boys would keep each other company.
Unlike Meghalaya’s more famous caves, Krem Jingbuhrieh remained relatively unknown. Its remote location made it inaccessible to tourists. ‘Jingbuhrieh’ meant secret. This cave, with its virgin beauty and enigmatic passages was the locals’ secret to cherish.
The ominous mouth of the cave stared back at them. While the older boys had visited this place before, it was the first time for the younger ones. They had packed water bottles, biscuits, food, and flashlights to traverse through the caverns where the light refused to touch the ground.
“Please stick together. We must return before the sun sets!” Lumlang exclaimed.
They set foot into the cave. It took their breath away, a whole new world, mysterious and alluring. The sunbeams tried to force their way through the rock canopy.
“Watch out for bats!” Michael teased, as Marak shifted uneasily.
On the roof of the cave, hundreds of bats hung upside down, watching them through their half-closed eyes.
The group marvelled at the majestic limestone and calcite formations. No one knew how old the structures in the cave were. Time seemed to come to a standstill here. Rock and stones in the womb of the Earth, witness to the birth of time itself.
Ahead of them was a pool of sapphire-tinted water, gleaming unnaturally in the darkness. They waded through it, seeking a dryer passageway. Lumlang pointed at the icicle-like stalactites clinging onto the walls.
“Marak…. Ma…rak….rak..” James’s voice echoed.
The younger ones gleefully called out to one other, as Michael shook his head in exasperation. At fourteen, he found the antics of ten-year old James childish.
Unperturbed, Lumlang continued to show off his knowledge.
“This is what you call a ‘cave curtain’. Can you see the natural intricate folding of the stone and rock? They form due to water trickling from the roof.”
“Bah! Tell us about the legend.”
“Years ago, there lived a noble king, whose enemies conspired to kill him. He managed to escape and sought refuge in this cave. He prayed to the cave spirits, who vowed to protect him. They kept his presence a secret; hence the name, Jingbuhrieh.
One day, the king’s enemies discovered his whereabouts. Legend has it that the spirits sent water flooding the cave, drowning the evildoers, and keeping the king safe.”
An icy gust of wind blew.
“Let’s eat! I packed Jadoh,” cried Lumlang.
The boys settled in a dry clearing and tucked into the spicy pork and rice, as the dark backdrop cocooned them in its comforting embrace.
January 16th, Pondicherry
Armaan swirled the contents of the glass and gulped it down, hoping it would numb his pain. The remnants of the golden-brown liquid, glinted in the light, reminding him of Asha’s eyes.
His phone rang.
Choosing to ignore it, he continued reminiscing. The girl he had known was full of life and laughter. Chemo had eroded her, body, and soul. Yet, she carried on bravely, till the very end. His eyes fell on the vacant space on the dining room wall. She had put up a poster with a poem on it; something about hope being a bird. He had ripped it into shreds after her funeral.
Hope. Such a sham.
His phone rang, for the third time. Somebody must be desperate.
“Armaan! Dr. Lyngdoh here. How are you?”
He had lost the love of his life, six months ago. How would he be?
“There is a village in Meghalaya, where four boys are trapped in a flooded cave. We need your help.”
“Sorry, I’m on a sabbatical right now.”
“We are running out of time, and we need experienced divers.”
“I’m sure you can find other cave divers. Isn’t the NDRF on it already? The media will hype it up too.”
“Armaan, this is a small village in the northeast. What coverage do you think they will get? We need specialists. You are their only hope!”
God, how he hated that word.
His eyes fell on Asha’s photo. Of course, she would want him to go.
Hope and all that shebang.
The boys looked at each other fearfully.
How had things gone downhill so quickly?
What a day they had had, crawling through the narrow passageways on their fours, their heads brimming with tales of adventure to take back. The cave had held them captive in her magnetic aura, and the adrenaline rush had hit them hard.
Lumlang insisted that they return, for they had ventured in too deep, but the younger boys had pleaded.
“Just one more passageway, then we can turn.”
It was Michael who heard the sound of the fierce pitter-patter against the rock walls. He recognized what it meant and asked them to rush out. It was too late by then. The waters approached them like coiling snakes, engulfing them slowly but surely, in their death-like clasp. They were already waist-deep down.
Cornered like barn rats, they did the only thing they could, retreat into the cave. Digging their way into an elevated cavern, they huddled together, scared. This was their worst nightmare come true.
“Bah, this is my fault!” James burst into tears.
“Hush. Stay calm. The rain will stop soon, and we can get out. “
“What if it doesn’t?”
“Cousin Rita knows where we are. Someone will come for us.”
Michael concealed his fears.
It had already been a day. If no one came for them, would they be condemned to die lonely deaths?
After a tiring journey, Armaan reached the abode of the clouds, Meghalaya. A local guide accompanied him along the hilly green scenic route to Krem Jingbuhrieh.
The crowd gathered there included parents, friends, relatives, and personnel from the SDRF and the NDRF. The rains pounded mercilessly, drops bouncing off umbrellas and raincoats, forming rivulets on the damp earth.
YTV NewsChannel had begun their live on-ground telecast.
“Four children are stranded in these caves due to unexpected flooding. Given the forecast for the next few days, a rescue seems almost impossible. Do you think the parents should have stopped the boys from embarking on this dangerous expedition? Tweet your replies and tag us.”
Armaan shook his head in disgust.
Rome burned, yet the media fiddled away.
Dr. Lyngdoh welcomed him.
“Armaan! Thank God you came.”
They had met at a cave diving camp in the UK and had kept in touch. Dr. Lyngdoh had attended Armaan’s wedding with Asha. That was the same year that Armaan shifted to Asha’s hometown, Pondicherry, where she worked for a local NGO. He set up his diving school there. They had been so happy. Until….
“Hi Doc! What is the latest status?”
“Water has flooded all the caverns, rendering them inaccessible without diving equipment. The previously deployed pumps were weak. We got new pumps today, and we are trying to reduce the water levels. The rains aren’t slowing down, making the drainage hard. Drones are surveying the hillside for any spaces we can drill into.
The boys must be somewhere deep inside. It’s their sheer bad luck that it started raining unexpectedly like this. Even if they are alive, they won’t last long. We need to get them out, fast.”
If the water didn’t get them, the exhaustion and the oxygen levels would.
Dr. Lyngdoh introduced Armaan to Capt. Vishal, a marine commando and one of the rescue leaders in charge of the operation. They went through the cave drawings, together.
“We divided the cave into chambers. At the entrance is chamber one, which is wide enough to wade through. It opens up to chamber two, which leads to multiple narrow passageways. On normal days one can crawl through them. Beyond that, we have no visibility. The villagers usually don’t venture out that far.
There are four children in total: two aged fourteen, and the other two, ten. They must have sought refuge on dry land, perhaps three or four kilometres inside. Our divers tried, but they had to return before they ran out of oxygen. If we can find the boys, we can run oxygen lines until we extricate them. But looking for them in this rocky mausoleum is the hard part. We are going to attempt diving in again. Join us.”
Armaan had never dived in blind, at least not without the faintest idea of the topography.
There is a first time for everything, baby.
Asha’s voice sounded in his head.
Michael cautioned them to drink the water that flowed through the cracks; at least it was fresh rainwater. Over the past few days, they had rationed their food, not knowing how long it would take to be rescued. They tried not to move much to save their strength. Their batteries were dying one by one, and they were left with just one flashlight.
The cave was becoming colder, and it was getting difficult to breathe. The floodwaters showed no sign of abating.
“What if the cave spirits are angry with us?” inquired Marak fearfully.
“Hush. We can’t lose heart.”
“I can’t breathe! Help Bah!” cried James.
“See the cracks on the rock wall? It lets cold ducts of air come in. We should be OK as long as we don’t panic. Come, let’s hold hands and meditate,” Lumlang pacified them.
They closed their eyes and tried to imagine happier moments. James’s breathing settled.
“When will someone find us?” demanded an anguished Marak.
Armaan made his descent into the flooded depths, in a scuba diving kit with an oxygen cylinder strapped to his back. Vishal followed suit. They made their way through the arduous labyrinth. At one point the passageway was so narrow, that they had to remove their oxygen cylinders to swim through, before finding a ledge to recoup. Both men had the same concern.
Experienced swimmers found it hard to navigate the cave. What chance did the boys stand? Assuming they were alive, how were they going to pull them out?
A dark and narrow passage awaited them, the hardest so far since it brimmed with water. Armaan asked Vishal to stay back on the ledge. He would go in first, with the other man on standby.
Armaan descended into the dark abyss, his headlights serving little purpose. It was getting narrow; he couldn’t see where he was going, and it felt like an endless tunnel. He groped the sides of the rock and propelled his body onward. Halfway through, he was gripped by a feeling of despondency.
What was the point of this rescue? They would likely find a bunch of rotting corpses. In the end, death always triumphed.
His head grew heavy. He let go and started sinking.
His thumping heartbeat was the only audible sound. Was this it?
Suddenly, there was a blinding light, and a form seemed to be swimming towards him. A girl wearing a smile he recognized, with golden-brown eyes he would happily drown in.
“Yes, baby. You are on the bridge between life and death.”
“Asha…I’ve missed you.”
“Me too. Do you know what breaks my heart? I was the one who died, yet you were the one who stopped living.”
“I can’t…. not without you.”
“Armaan, you can’t give up! You are the boys’ hope…and when hope is lost….”
“Everything is lost!” I completed her sentence for her, earning a dimpled smile.
“Promise me you will try.”
“Can’t I stay with you, here?”
“Now is not your time.”
She pushed him away, playfully.
He felt a powerful current forcefully propel him through the water. He dragged himself onto the rocky passageway, reeling from his near-death experience and the euphoria of seeing HER again.
A pungent odour hit his nostrils. With a thundering heart, he crawled ahead.
No sound could have been sweeter.
Armaan left the boys with food and other supplies. He also gave them promises. Promises that he would return to rescue them. Promises he hoped to keep.
He turned back, navigating through the same perilous route that had taken him there. Once he and Vishal reached basecamp, they shared the happy news with everyone, and brainstormed on what the next course of action would be.
A collective sigh of relief went around. At last, there was a sliver, a chance. The pastor of the local church and a few members of the congregation gathered to pray. An ambulance was on standby.
YTV started their telecast.
“Breaking News! The boys have been located three kilometres within the interior. Bringing them back to the surface will be a challenge given that the chambers are fully flooded, and the rains show no signs of easing. The rescue operation is being planned.
Do you think the boys will be rescued today? Tweet your replies and tag us.”
Armaan engaged in active discussion with the rescue team.
“We can’t pull them out unless the waters recede. They don’t know how to swim and would drown instantly.”
“What if we sedate them?” Dr. Lyngdoh suggested.
“We could sedate them, fit them with oxygen masks, and pass them like packages through the narrow passageways. It is risky, but it’s the only option. Let’s try this today.”
“Not today. The rainfall has increased. The pumps will not be able to keep up.”
“What do we do in the meantime?” Armaan demanded.
“We wait. And hope.”
Armaan wondered if Asha and Vishal were long-lost twins.
Michael glanced worriedly at the waters at the end of the cavern; they seemed to have risen more than the previous day.
“Bah, when we go home, I want to eat ice cream!”
“Of course, James. What about you Marak?”
“I want to see my family!”
“Armaan promised us that he would get help. He will be back, soon.”
“Let me teach you the song of the cave spirits. Hum it gently so they help us,” suggested Lumlang.
The soft singing calmed the boys.
It had rained all night and rainwater continued to percolate. The boys had been down there for over a week now. Armaan stomped his foot in frustration.
A woman with red-rimmed eyes and an ashen face walked up to him.
“My son is in there.”
“We are trying…”
“I know. You will get him out. I’m sure.”
Armaan swallowed a lump in his throat. He glanced at the sky with a prayer on his lips; something he hadn’t done in a long time.
“Give me one chance. Please.”
A ray of sunshine peeked through the clouds, blinding him for a moment.
Was this a sign?
It was. Mother Nature seemed to be aligned, as the rains paused, granting them temporary respite.
Vishal gave the go-ahead. The mission would be carried out by four divers- one for each boy. Dr. Lyngdoh would be there too, to perform the sedation. They didn’t have a second to waste; the rescue had to be carried out with mechanical precision, each second being the difference between life and death.
It was a sombre moment. Onlookers crouched on the muddy ground, their heads bent, hands folded in veneration to the skies, to the cave spirits, and to the brave men who were embarking on the mission of their lives, hoping against hope to return with the four stranded children. Alive.
The team crossed chambers one and two in an hour. From there, they struggled to get to the ledge because of the heavy equipment they were carrying. When they finally made it, they erected a crude pulley system, and set up their supplies.
As Armaan swam through the final narrow passageway to the boys, a part of him wondered if Asha would come to him again.
Stop your wishful thinking. Focus. The children need you.
When he reached the cavern, the boys cheered for him. They were weak and emaciated, but in good spirits.
“Who wants to go home?”
“Me!” yelled four voices in unison.
Dr. Lyngdoh joined them next. He injected Marak, the smallest of the four, with a sedative. They tied him to a stretcher-like structure and placed an oxygen mask and life jacket over him. This was their ‘live cargo’.
Armaan pushed the sedated child through the water in the narrow passageway to the ledge. It was terrifying, knowing that someone’s life lay in his hands. The tiniest misstep could snuff this life out. He swam with calculated slow strokes, clutching tightly onto the stretcher. He got stuck at one place, but Vishal tugged from the other end, extricating the two.
Armaan handed over Marak to the other divers on the ledge. Vishal showed a thumbs-up. Scrapes and bruises, but still breathing. Another diver on the team proceeded to take Marak out. Once they got to chamber two, it would be smooth sailing.
One down. Three to go.
James was next. He was light enough and his extraction was uneventful. Michael followed. Only Lumlang was left. He wanted to be the last; he kept insisting that it was his idea to visit the cave and felt responsible for the group’s predicament.
The boy was tall and lanky, and Armaan almost feared he wouldn’t be able to get him through. Pushing him out of the abyss, was quite a daunting task. After a few excruciating minutes, they hauled him onto the ledge, where he started stirring. Dr. Lyngdoh administered an additional dose to keep him still.
The hard part was over. Now they had to get out of there.
There were still many more paths to conquer to emerge victorious. Anything could go wrong. But for the first time in a long time, Armaan felt something warm and fuzzy. Something that unfurled in his chest, like the petals of a flower, and fluttered like a bird.
Just like Asha’s poem.
The team worked from point to point, until they reached chamber one, and not a minute too soon. The moment the last boy was taken out of the cave, a pump broke down, and the waters came rushing in. The rescue team and the pump operators raced out of the cave.
It was an emotional moment. The air reverberated with cries of Khublei Shibun. People started crying and clapping joyfully. For once, YTV didn’t have any questions for Twitter. The children were rushed off in ambulances to the hospital, along with their tearful, relieved parents.
This was the moment the operation had reached fruition; it felt surreal. Armaan looked up at the skies; it had started drizzling again. There was also a hint of a rainbow.
Must be Asha’s doing. Trust that woman to send rainbows from above.
It’s been a year since the rescue. I receive letters from the boys that talk about school, football, and life in general. That day, not four but five lives were saved, mine included.
I remember Asha’s voice.
“My name means hope. Even after I’m gone, never lose hope. Because sometimes, hope is the only thing you have. “
I remember the four boys huddling in that cavern surrounded by walls of water, and I know it to be true.
She was always right, wasn’t she?
I unfurl my latest purchase, a poster similar to the one we had.
Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
Glossary (Khasi Words)
Kumno – Hello
Bah– Elder brother
Jadoh- Local dish of spicy meat and red rice
Khublei Shibun– Thank you
SDRF- State Disaster Response Force
NDRF- National Disaster Response Force
This story is fictional. Krem Jingbuhrieh does not exist. I created an imaginary cave based on other Meghalayan caves so that I could take creative liberties with the topography and the story.
This story is inspired by the Thai cave rescue in Chiang Rai.
While this rescue received international attention and had a happy ending, erstwhile in Meghalaya, the opposite happened with miners dying in flooded shafts.
‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ – Emily Dickinson
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