Alam wiped the grease from his forehead as he walked back home. It was eight o’ clock in the night; the time the mechanic shed that he worked for usually closed shop. As he made his way into the hut he shared with his two brothers and mother, Alam sighed with weariness. The day had been a long and tiring one, even for a strong eighteen year old boy.
"Come, wash your hands, Alam and have your dinner," his old mother said as she smiled at him affectionately.
Dinner was a few rotis with pickle and thin watery buttermilk. This was all his family could afford these days. Alam finished his dinner quickly and went to bed.
In spite of being bone-weary, he was wide awake, probably because his dinner had failed to satisfy his hunger. Around midnight, the faint rumbling in his stomach became a loud roar. Alam got up and went out. He walked to the large banyan tree outside his house and climbed it. Ever since he had learnt to walk, Alam had been climbing trees. This one was his particular favorite.
"The wind in the banyan is a magical song, Loved by the angels, it's a wonderful....." Alam sang the song his mother had taught him.
His family had been living in the same hut for many generations and the banyan tree was said to be a hundred years old. One of his ancestors had actually composed a song about it and it had been passed down through the years.
Alam climbed higher and sat down on a wider, more comfortable branch still singing. Gradually, he became aware of another voice singing with him- a sweeter voice; melodious and soft. Alam stopped abruptly. So did the voice.
"Who’s that? Who's singing with me?" asked Alam, looking down at the ground.
"Um" said a voice from somewhere above him. Alam looked up and almost fell off the branch. The voice that had spoken belonged to a penguin.
A talking penguin…
A talking penguin sitting in a banyan tree…
A talking penguin sitting in a banyan tree in
'Hi, Alam,' said the penguin.
Alam was silent. The penguin tried again. 'Hi!'
"Hi…" said Alam.
"You must have a few questions...," it said.
"You could say that," said Alam, pinching himself.
"Well, that’s understandable, but we don't have much time for all that."
"Wha...Why? Am I dying?" asked Alam, suddenly convinced that this was the reason he was sitting in a banyan tree talking to a penguin.
"No, no! We're taking a trip," said the penguin.
"Oh!" Alam felt a hundred questions swimming in his head.
"Yes, we'd better hurry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get tickets. We'll have to travel 'without'," said the penguin with a wink.
"Without what?" Alam asked horrified, clutching his shirt.
"Without tickets, silly. You don’t have many marbles up there, do you?" asked the penguin pointing at Alam’s head.
Alam glared at the penguin. His brain seemed to have slowed down to the point of stopping. He did manage one question though-
"Where are we going?"
“You’ll find out soon enough. Come on,” said the penguin climbing higher up the tree. “By the way, my name is Retan.”
“R-E-T-A-N,” the penguin spelled.
When they reached the topmost branch, Alam saw Retan readying himself to jump off the tree.
“Now look here, penguin. If you want to commit suicide, go ahead. I understand it must be difficult for you so far away from home. But I’m not jumping!”
Retan looked at Alam with his beady eyes. “Don’t you have any faith? I am not killing myself. I’m just getting ready to fly.”
“Fly?! You?! I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re a penguin! You can’t fly!”
“And it’s perfectly natural for me to talk, is it?”
“Oh…” Alam looked embarrassed. “Well, what about me? I can’t fly.”
Retan didn’t speak. He called Alam forward and poked him in the stomach.
But Retan jumped off the branch and to Alam’s amazement, actually flew! After he had gone about 10 feet, Alam felt something pull him forward. He looked down but couldn’t see anything. Suddenly, without any warning, Alam felt himself pulled completely off his feet with great force. He closed his eyes, but he wasn’t falling. He opened one eye. He really wasn’t falling! He was flying!
Amazed, Alam opened his eyes wide. It was like there was an invisible rope connecting him to Retan as the penguin flew ahead. He was being towed! It felt incredible.
“Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” he shouted. Then he remembered something Retan had said. “I thought you said you didn’t get tickets. I thought that meant we were travelling by train or something,” he shouted ahead.
“This kind of travel requires tickets toooooo,” Retan’s voice floated back to him.
Alam didn’t understand but he was too struck with the fact that he was flying to really care. They were passing a mountain and it seemed to Alam that he could reach out and touch it if he wanted to. When he looked ahead, he could see that they were going to fly into a mass of clouds. But Retan swooped down, taking them towards a thick forest. They descended slowly, right in the middle of the forest. When his feet touched the ground, Alam turned to Retan and smiled brightly. “Thank you! I never dreamed I would fly. Especially with a fat…”
“Especially with a fast penguin,” Alam said.
“Yes. Well, it’s no trouble. Anyway we’re here.”
Alam looked around. “Where is ‘here’ exactly? We didn’t fly very far….”
“Oh yes we did. It didn’t seem that way to you, that’s all. We’re in the
“It’s true. Look at that peak. It’s the Everest.”
Alam gaped at the mountains around them with his mouth open. “Wow!”
Retan waddled to the nearest tree and sat down at its base. “Get some rest. We have some more flying to do.”
Alam felt way too excited to sleep, so he sat down and started shooting questions. “So what’s a penguin doing in
? In my front yard, that too.” India
Retan answered with his eyes still closed. “It is a unique bond between your family and mine, going back many generations. I was told I would one day find myself transported to some distant place, where I would guide an 18 year old boy to the
My grandfather travelled with your father decades ago. Now it’s our turn.”
“But how did it all start?”
“That, I do not know. My family says it happened many hundred years ago- a friendship that existed between one of your ancestors and one of mine. A promise was made and it is still being kept.”
“Wow.” Alam was amazed. After a while, he said, “But what is the purpose of this journey? Where are we going and what are we going to do there?”
“That has never been revealed. My father told me that each experience is unique and that we would both find out only after we reached the final place.”
“Alam”, the penguin sounded tired. “I’ve been pulling your human backside behind me for many miles. Can you please keep quiet and let me rest?” Retan turned his head away and Alam quieted down. Soon, his eyes closed and he slept.
When he woke up, he was shocked to find himself in mid air, flying again with Retan a few feet ahead of him.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” he shouted.
“Sleeping beauty looked too beautiful,” Retan shouted back.
Alam glared at the penguin and decided not to speak to him for awhile. He looked around instead. It was getting much colder but the snow covered mountains below him looked even colder. When they reached a deep valley between two huge mountains, Retan began to descend. The valley had patches of snow in between small fields of green. There were many tiny pools. Retan landed beside one of them and turned to watch Alam settle down.
“Now what?” said the penguin.
Alam gaped at him. “What do you mean- ‘now what’?! You’re the penguin who can talk and fly. You took me from my home and brought me to the
The Himalayas! And you ask me ‘now what’?”
“I was told I would know where to go. I knew I had to bring you. That’s all. What we do here….I really don’t know.”
“You’re a psycho penguin who kidnaps boys, aren’t you?”
Retan rolled his eyes. “Well, let’s walk around. Maybe we’ll find something.” Retan waddled off and Alam followed, shaking his head. They stopped at one of the pools to drink some fresh cold water. It was then that Alam noticed something odd. He turned to Retan.
“Did you notice that the pools don’t reflect anything?”
The penguin looked down and then up. “You’re right.”
They both looked down but the water was just a sort of bluish grey. Nothing looked back at them. No human boy. No penguin.
“Weird,” said Alam.
“Strange,” said Retan.
“Aaaarghhh!” shouted Alam and Retan as they felt themselves falling into the pool. It was as if they were being pushed in. Alam closed his eyes, expecting to hit ice cold water. But he felt nothing. When he opened his eyes, he and Retan were still beside the pool. Alam quickly turned around and saw a shadow dart behind a rock. He silently pointed to the rock and nodded at Retan. Together they moved towards the rock, each going around one side of the rock. As they got close, they broke into a run and jumped behind it.
And ended up in each other’s arms.
“What love story is this?” said a voice above them. Alam and Retan looked up to see a tiny creature standing on the rock. It looked like an overgrown ant, with big blue eyes and a shiny black body.
They got to their feet and glared at it. “What sort of insect are you?” asked Retan.
“Insect, am I? Is that what you think, fatso?”
Alam laughed but shut up quickly when the penguin turned to him. “Do you have any bug spray in your pocket?”
Alam shook his head no and jumped back as the insect suddenly did a somersault and landed right in front of them.
“I am not an insect, penguin. My, you do look cross. Not cute and cuddly at all, like your grandfather.”
Retan spoke up. “You knew my grandfather?”
“He came here, many years ago. With this boy’s father,” said the ant, pointing to Alam.
Before either of them could speak, the ant continued. “And your great great grandfather came with this boy’s grandfather. Do you want me to go on?”
“Please don’t!” said Alam and Retan at the same time.
The ant jumped high into the air and landed on the exact same spot. “Fine then. Now I’ll tell you why you’re here.”
“Finally…” the penguin murmured.
“Impatient?” asked the ant. “Well, don’t be. You have an adventure ahead of you. It will take time. So hold on to your underwear.”
There was a pause as all three looked at the penguin. “Oh, you don’t wear any. Right. Well, as I was saying, its adventure time! Then both of you will be given a choice.”
The ant fell silent and started scratching the ground. After a minute of this, Retan shouted “Oy!”
“Oh, yes, sorry. So the choice is this- after I leave, you will find before you six stones; each one a different color. Picking up any one stone will take you to a different world. There, you - Alam will become a creature of that world. You- Retan will remain a penguin, but be invisible. The both of you will have 2 days in that world. You will be able to speak, read and understand the language. Bye now.”
“Hold on” shouted Alam, “you didn’t tell us why?”
“Why? Why?!” shouted the ant. “Why not? It is an opportunity to learn, isn’t it? That’s why. Don’t ask questions, boy. Oh, I almost forgot to mention- you will also find a bag with quite a few things in it. Use it if you want to. Bye again!” The ant jumped high into the air once, twice. The third time, it didn’t return. Alan and Retan watched it disappear into the sky. When they looked down, they saw a small backpack at Alam’s feet and six stones laid out in a row- blue, green, red, yellow, orange and black.
“Let’s pick the red one,” said Alam.
“Blue” said Retan.
“Look, I say red.”
“And I say blue!”
Alam smiled at Retan. “Penguin, you don’t have any hands to pick the stones up with.”
“Shucks,” said Retan.
“Well, come on.”
The two walked forward. Alam, backpack strapped to his shoulders, bent down to pick up the red stone. “Here we go!” he said.
(Six different stories follow, each in a world more fantastic and strange than our own!)