I must have been a mole in a former life, I love tunneling so much; both tunneling itself and the idea of tunneling. As a child I spent countless happy hours burrowing into books, emerging only reluctantly, dazed and blinking, into the light of day. Drawn to tunnels in books, I was charmed by Mole’s and Badger’s cozy dens in The Wind in the Willows, safe from winter and the weasels; Peter and the Lost Boys’ underground hideout in Peter Pan, accessible only through the trunk of a hollow tree; Bag End, Underhill, Bilbo Baggins’ delightfully well-appointed earth-sheltered hobbithole in The Hobbit; caveman Stig’s quarry home literally dropped into by Barney in Stig of the Dump; and, aided by his younger sisters, Friday’s extensive earthworks in Friday’s Tunnel, the prize of my Puffin book collection and perhaps my all-time favorite.
In “real life”—not that I made a distinction between the worlds of my books and the world at large—I constructed tunnels and makeshift caves at home, using beds, blankets, and chairs. I tunneled into sandpiles at a construction site on the Hijli campus, stopping only by an innate sense of self-preservation when I realized that there was no way that I could have shored up the ceiling as Friday had. There was a culvert that was dry, or nearly dry except during the monsoons, and by crawling into it one could hide under the road, unnoticed by passers-by. I shudder now to think of the snakes and scorpions I could have disturbed there, but they were of no concern to me at the time.
In “Through the Tunnel,” a much-anthologized story by Doris Lessing, a boy tests his manhood by swimming through an underwater tunnel, holding his breath throughout the unknown length of it until he emerges triumphant at the other end. As a child I tested myself in other ways, but thankfully, having no manhood to prove, I felt no compulsion to risk my life. Riding into subway, railway, and highway tunnels was always a thrill, though, when it went suddenly dark and one could peer out at the damp walls and sometimes catch a glimpse of mysterious underground passageways, the stuff of science fiction, known only to those who worked in their shadowy depths.
Late one summer when Nikhil was perhaps ten, he and a friend were helping Andrew dig out new potatoes from the rich, loose soil in the back garden when they accidentally unearthed a nest of newborn baby moles, pink and shiny and infinitely vulnerable. Their first impulse was sheer delight at the wonder of this tumble of new life; their second, protectiveness: they were yet too tiny, too young to be exposed to the world. Reverently, we covered them back over with our hands, setting aside the certainty that if these little mites survived they would wreak havoc in Andrew’s beautiful raised beds. And the sense of awe remained with us all that day.
Like Stig, who stepped out of his quarry into the modern world at great risk, like Bilbo Baggins, who longed for his hobbithole even as he did battle with goblins and engaged in high-stakes wordplay deep underground, and unlike the boy in Doris Lessing’s story, the light at the end of the tunnel had little appeal for me. When I was out in the world I certainly did fierce and joyful battle with it, but a stronger, more compelling desire drew me inward. Protective of myself as Nikhil was protective of that clutch of baby moles, I sought refuge in my books, and still do.