The Wrong Turn

“How was I to know this was a wrong turn?” Suresh shouted at the top of his voice, more so to hear himself above the screaming sounds of the others than to acknowledge what the others had already figured.  They were lost! They looked outside the car window, and all they could see were dense trees and foliage. The setting sun was providing no respite to their already aggravated state. In some time, it would be pitch dark, and everyone feared for their safety in this wilderness.  Suresh and his college friends Avinash, Zakir, Shirley, Rakhi, and Pearl had embarked on a road trip for their college vacations. They left Pune at eight am and decided to drive aimlessly across the Konkan beach stretch. Nothing was planned, and they decided to stop as per their convenience and need. Suresh was the self-confessed mess at reading the GPS and abstained from even being near any kind of map, physical or virtual. He loved to drive and was most comfortable on city roads where there was a milestone after every km. On stretches of road like the one they were on, lined with palm trees and fields on one side and crystal clear beaches on the other, it was an absolutely ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ movie moment for him. Avinash was the DJ on the trip, his livewire energy and fun-loving demeanor made him the perfect escort for the driver, you could never run out of good songs and chatter. Zakir was the ‘Shayari’/ anecdote guy, having something wise to say for every moment and occasion.  Amongst the girls, Pearl was the cool ‘Parsi’ chick who loved everything food, right from ‘Dhansak’ to her ‘Salli Mutton’ to ‘Tandoori Chicken’ and plain ol ‘Dal Fry’, with her around, you could never go hungry. Rakhi was the bubbly fun loving gal, who had non-stop gossip on any and everyone, right from celebs to their college buddies and even their professors. Shirley was the brain of the group, quiet to the point of being considered rude, she was an introvert who spoke only in the presence of those who made her feel comfortable. Her oversized spectacles often hid most of her emotions and expressions. With the gang though she was a completely different person, she had formed a beautiful rapport with the remaining five since day one of college, when they’d unconsciously all come together and stood for her, saving her from being ‘ragged’. Now in their fourth year of college, the rapport between all was so strong that even their parents had no objection to them taking this road trip together. All was going well for the friends. They went to some conventional beaches and also some not-so-famous ones. With the adventure of staying in cottages near the shoreline and eating home-cooked meals from the shanty owners, the trip had been all fun and frolic. Lazing about and chilling, it helped that August was an off-season month for the coastal areas due to the heavy rainfall it receives, so they barely encountered any crowd. It was only them as far as their eyes could see. They had a quiet stay at their current location, the secluded Velas Beach, which is famous for its turtle hatching season from Feb-April, post which it becomes dead quiet there. The gang sat together on their second night on the Velas beach and decided to chart their course of action. “It's been a great five days. How about retracing back and heading to Pune? I’m dreading the assignments that I have to work on, the submission is next week”, said Pearl, stuffing another prawn fry in her already full mouth. What has to happen, will happen for sure”, Zakir quipped in a relaxing mood.  “Oye Mr. Wiseguy. It’s not like the assignment will do itself”, said Avinash. “And you”, he threw an empty disposable plate towards Pearl, “Did the assignment just land up on you? You knew it was to be done right at the beginning of the term. If you only concentrated a bit more on studies than food, you would've completed the assignment like the rest of us”, he added. Shirley hugged Pearl and said to the rest “Stop picking on her. If not for her, would we have had such amazing food and dishes on this trip? All of the research on local food was her efforts. Come to think of it, why didn’t you just take up a Hotel Management Course? With your expertise and liking, you would’ve surely aced it, Pearl”. “Right, she surely would've. But the college wouldn't have survived long. All the ingredients to be used in teaching recipes would be where we all know”, Shirley winked pointing towards Pearl's stomach. Suresh couldn't stop himself and started laughing which led to everyone breaking into bouts of laughter. Pearl tried to look offended, but ultimately gave up her pretense and joined the others too in laughing at herself. It was nearly three am and they decided to call it a night when Suresh impromptu said, “How about we visit Kelshi Beach tomorrow? It's a two-and-a-half-hour drive from here at the most. I remember going there in my childhood and had some fond memories there. What say, guys' '? Everyone looked at the other hoping to get an answer. When no one spoke, Avinash said,” What the hell! We've been here five days, a couple of days here and there won't really matter. When will we get this chance again? Next year we’d all be neck-deep into our books preparing for our final year.  I say ``let's do this”. “You make sense, Avinash. What the future awaits no one can tell, so let's live in the present and enjoy it to the utmost”, Zakir spoke in his usual style. “So it is decided. Tomorrow we head out for Kelshi Beach”, they said in unison. What started off on a happy and playful note with the car stereo blaring and conversations going to and fro, soon turned into a disaster. First, it was the puncture in the middle of nowhere and then internet connectivity issues that had left them all high and dry without any directions. The plan to Kelshi Beach was such an impromptu one, that no one remembered to download an offline map. On the road for five hours now, with no signboard or milestone of Kelshi Beach anywhere in sight, from the middle of nowhere on a seemingly straight road, there suddenly appeared an intersection. Everyone forgot their fatigue and rubbed their tired eyes. Last night's lack of sleep and the seemingly easy two to three hours journey seemed mighty tiring for all. “Now what? The GPS isn't working when we need it the most. Which way should we go, left or right?” a harrowed Rakhi looked at the others. They all looked equally confused and tired.  “Let’s flip a coin?” Pearl said. “Since we all are equally clueless and anyways have to take a chance, let destiny decide for us. And anyways as long as we are together, let us consider this as one of our many adventures. Heads we go right and tails we go left”. Avinash flipped the coin and Rakhi called ‘head’ and the head it was indeed. “Ok let us take the road on the right”, Avinash nudged Suresh.  Shirley who was quiet all this time spoke: “Guys let's take the left. I have a strong feeling that's the way we should be going”. “Even I think the same. Left is my call too”, Suresh interjected. “C'mon now guys we decided we would go with the coin toss, it is four against two, let us go on the right side road fast before it gets even darker”, Rakhi said impatiently. “Besides, I need to use the restroom urgently as well.” “Let us go left, guys. I'll take the entire onus on me if I'm wrong and treat you all to a delicious meal.”, Suresh once again argued. “Ok fine. You and Shirley win, Go left but please hurry up before my bladder explodes”, Rakhi interjected. It had been nearly thirty minutes and all they saw were trees, even the coastline grew fainter. Zakir brought attention to his observation and everyone agreed that they were indeed lost. With the setting sun, the visibility around was marginal. Everyone squinted their tired eyes to make some sense of the road and surroundings. “Oh gosh, we are lost,'' cried Pearl.  “I need to pee,” said a distraught Rakhi. “I just want to sleep. Can't keep my eyes open”, interjected Avinash. “Look at this beauty of nature. New roads often lead to new beginnings” spoke Zakir philosophically. “It is not so bad guys. At least we are all together”, Shirley tried to console everyone and lift the sagging spirits of the friends. “Look I can see lights” Suresh exclaimed. “Must be our destination for sure”.   As the car came nearer to the lights something felt off. Everyone had the same look on their faces as though saying, “Think twice”, but it was too late to do anything now. “Switch off the car headlights and drive. That way we’ll be safer and get a chance to observe our surroundings”, Shirley said. “Yeah that sounds like the most decent plan I've heard since yesterday”, quipped Avinash.  The moment Suresh turned off his headlight it turned to pitch dark. They could notice male figures in the distance and were elated and scared, both. As they neared the source of the light they saw a fireplace around which sat a group of men holding a long shiny metal object. It didn't take a genius to know that those were rifles. The gang of friends panicked and decided to turn back when they accidentally drove into dried fallen branches. The crushing sound of the leaves under the tires was enough to alert the men of their presence. Suresh switched on the headlights not caring about anything and started driving like a maniac hoping to reach the intersection soon. What the friends didn't fathom was that they would be followed by the men in their jeeps. The distance between the two cars was alarmingly close and one of the men shouted loud enough for all of them to hear “Stop or I’ll Shoot”. “Suresh, don't stop. Keep driving faster” “Are you insane? Those men would catch up with us in no time and really shoot us”. “Oh gosh! Do I see another vehicle approaching us?”   “We don't stand a chance. It will be wise to stop and talk to them. I'm sure they will be reasonable once they know we are lost and didn't mean any harm”. Suresh heard all of this and his fingers froze at the wheels. In his panicked state, he pressed the brake hard, and the car nearly skidded. With the two cars approaching them, they all looked at each other in a panicked state. “Let us all run in different directions. That way we can maximize our chance of survival and getting help”, Zakir said. “Yeah, that sounds like a plan. Since there are only two cars we can use this opportunity and try to escape and hide”, said Shirley. Suresh stopped the car and everyone came out at once. They huddled together as though for the last time and started running in different directions. The two jeeps stopped where the car was parked whilst the men peered inside finding it empty. They immediately fathomed what could've happened and they split up as well. On their own, running for life and all alone in the wilderness, the friends were scared and feared for the worst.  Pearl ran as fast as her legs allowed, but stumbled and fell because of a stone. She was the first one to be caught.  Rakhi had almost given up running and stood panting under a tree when hands grabbed her and pinned her against a tree. Shirley and Suresh were simultaneously caught albeit in different directions.  Zakir was the next one to be caught and brought to the waiting jeeps. Avinash had somehow managed to escape. Since the men were unaware of their number, it served as a blessing for him. Avinash kept on running till he had strength.  When the rest five were rounded off and taken together, they looked at each other with sad eyes. Each wondered how the fun trip they’d planned took such a dreadful turn. When the jeep stopped near the fire, the five friends were hustled down. “They sure don't look like poachers or have they started dressing differently to fool us?”. “Poachers?” All five said in unison! They also realized that the men in front of them were not to be feared but rather they were forest rangers who were on their night patrol duty.  “Sir, we are college students who got lost on our road trip due to a wrong turn. Please release us, we wish no harm on anyone”, Zakir pleaded. Pearl shivered and started crying. The events of the day took a toll on her. Seeing her even Shirley and Rakhi started crying.  How could the boys be left behind?  Zakir and Suresh broke into uncontrollable sobs. “I am feeling so scared,'' Zakir cried.  “You were scared of us? Actually, it was the other way around. We had gotten a tip that a group of poachers was to hunt down animals tonight in the forest. Elephant tusk poaching has become a regular offense here and every night we've started these rounds. The number of poachers also has definitely reduced thanks to our nightly rounds”, said one of the forest rangers. “There they are. Please arrest them and rescue my friends”, Avinash instructed the accompanying police officers.  The five friends were relieved to see Avinash safe and sound. What they weren’t prepared for is this chaos and confusion. The police officers laughed when they saw Avinash’s so-called fugitives who had kidnapped his friends and the laughter was louder from the forest ranger's side as the five friends also joined them.  Avinash looked dazed and confused. When he was told that the men were forest rangers on their patrol duty Avinash’s face turned a beetroot red. He further learned that the policemen were summoned by the forest rangers themselves to catch the five friends. Laughter followed after all the confusion with everyone telling their side of the story. Just as things were returning to normalcy, there were sounds heard in the dead of the night. The five friends huddled together and the forest rangers went instantly on high alert mode. They sensed nefarious activity and made a military-like formation and headed down towards the source of the sound. The friends who were warned to stay behind, couldn't control their impulses and followed the forest rangers. When they saw the poachers, they were scared to death. Hearing about them and seeing them for real was indeed a daunting experience. The forest rangers were not able to hold their own against the poachers who were double in number.  The friends decided to be of assistance to the rangers and planned a surprise attack on the poachers from behind. They took wood logs that were in the bonfire for their defense. Whilst the poachers were busy trying to disarm the forest rangers, the friends' attack left the poachers in shock. Within a fraction of a second, the rangers took complete advantage of this confusion and swooped in and captured the poachers. The poachers caught were all men dressed in khaki ensembles with sacks of weapons and ammunition. They were the same men responsible for the crimes in the forest and whom the forest rangers had been looking for. They found in their possession a large amount of animal hide and tusks. When the rangers questioned them on the area of the activity, and the source of their catch, the poachers led them inside thick foliage where lay innumerable dead animals. The saddest sight was watching beside a dead elephant, its baby shedding tears. Once the poachers were transported to the police station, the friends and the forest rangers let out a sigh of relief. It was indeed a day full of surprises. Whilst the rangers made provision for the safe return of the friends, the six of them sat together huddled near the fire. They just wanted to soak in everything that they had been witness to and more so for the miracle that they all were still together and unhurt.  The quietude of the night was shattered with a loud rumbling sound. Everyone looked towards the source, Pearl.  “After all this adventure and escapade, of course, I'm going to feel hungry. It is only natural”, Pearl replied impishly. “No it isn’t!” Avinash joked. “Only you could've thought of food at a time like this Pearl”. The friends couldn't believe their luck and the adrenaline rush they just experienced. One wrong turn had given them this unforgettable adventure. This was definitely going to be a trip the friends would remember for a long time. Or as Zakir wisely says, “In life, many times we encounter roads that are seemingly less trodden on. Let us keep our minds and hearts open because sometimes on these roads we find lifelong memories!   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!