Monday, November 10, 2014

'The Southernmost General Store of India' in The Last Wave - an island novel

 THE LAST WAVE - An Island Novel

Chapter 22
Nesting Turtles  
Pg 249-250

MV Chowra docked at Campbell Bay, the administrative headquarters of Great Nicobar Island late on Christmas evening. The Range Forest Officer, Mr Das, was waiting for Harish and Seema at the jetty and they set off straightaway for the turtle camp at Galathea Bay forty kilometres away. The road hugged the coast for the most part, riding over muddy brown creeks, cutting through coconut plantations rich with large fruit, and past settlements with large houses made of timber and corrugated tin sheeting. Shastrinagar at the 35 kilometres mark was the last settlement along this road, and it was just as they passed the last house here that Das slowed his vehicle, pulled aside and stopped by a small shop with a huge areca plantation behind it. Potatoes, onions, biscuits packets, slippers, towels, coconuts, packets of grain and spices, all lay together in the few shelves on display in the front. The shop was dimly lit and rather empty otherwise. A kerosene stove buzzed incessantly outside and a small kettle hissed vapour in an unintended duet. The only exceptional feature of the shop was its name, which seemed to have been freshly painted on a big board by the roadside:

Southern Most General Store of India
(6½°N Latitude)
Shastrinagar, 35 kms, Great Nicobar Is.
Proprietor – Balbir Singh

This was an accurate rendering of the shop’s geography; nothing indeed lay beyond Balbir Singh’s little entrepreneurial venture. Everyone who came here for the first time found this amusing and Seema smiled too as she saw the Board. For researchers going into the wilderness beyond, this was the last outpost of modern life.

Harish had been here a few months ago, and immediately recognised the old man sitting on a stool by the stove—the seventy-year-old proprietor with a long, flowing silver beard. He said a polite namaste, and sat down on the bench. The old man appeared to recognize Harish too, and returned his greeting with a pleasant smile.

‘Can we have some tea, Sardarji?’ Das called out from his vehicle, ‘and Harish,’ he continued, ‘please pick up the provisions that you want. You know you won’t get much at the camp. I think you should take some basic stuff—rice, dal, sugar, tea, pickle, some potatoes, onions and maybe...’ he scanned the shelves to see if he could find something interesting, ‘yes, take that tin of Haldiram’s rasogollas, but first check how old it is.’

Tea and shopping done, the visitors started off again. From here, the road went winding up a gentle gradient, then descended sharply and moved along the coast for a little before it cut more deeply into the forest. When it finally emerged, they found themselves at Galathea Bay. Here, at the mouth of the river Galathea, a wide beach of silver sand extended into the distance like a graceful arc of the waning moon. This was one of the best places to watch endangered sea turtles as they came out to nest.

The turtle camp of the Forest Department here was only a small bamboo shack, holed up in a small forest clearing by the beach. Camp Officer Winbrite Guria saluted Das, and said a big hello to Harish. He too had recognised Harish from his last visit. ‘If you need anything, tell Winbrite,’ Das said to Harish, and then turned to Winbrite, who had just unloaded the bags from the vehicle. ‘Ok, Winbrite? I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Winbrite saluted again as Das returned to his vehicle.

The sun had retired for the night, and as was the practice here, the staff had already had their evening meal. Some dal and rice was now set to cook for the visitors. As they waited, Winbrite explained with an apology, ‘Hope you can manage somehow tonight. There is no sleeping place inside the hut, but first thing tomorrow morning we’ll organise something. Madam has come here for the first time, I’m really sorry.’

Harish had been here earlier and knew the forest staff quite well. He had been in these islands for only a little more than a year, but had already travelled quite widely and wildly, covering almost its entire length — from Landfall in the north of the Andamans to the Nicobars in the south, even into parts of the Jarawa Reserve that very few had visited. Improvising had become a way of life; be it shacking up in a police station in a remote village, spending a rainfilled night alongside cows in an abandoned bus shelter, being out at sea for over a week on a dungi or sleeping on the jetty because the evening boat had left ten minutes before schedule, he’d endured it all. Sleeping on a pristine beach like this one, with a starlit sky for a canopy was better than most other situations he’d encountered. He would be fine. He looked at Seema. She seemed pretty alright too.

‘We’ll be fine, Winbrite,’ Harish placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Don’t worry.’

‘Yes, yes,’ Seema quickly added. ‘Don’t worry, Winbrite. I’ll be fine. I’m an island girl.’

It was about quarter past seven by the time the two had their simple meal for the night. Harish now unfurled a huge blue tarpaulin sheet and spread it out on the beach some distance from the turtle camp.

‘Hopefully,’ he said to Seema, ‘we’ll be beyond the high tide line and won’t have to run when the tide comes in. The tide’s beginning to rise, but it’s still a couple of hours from being full. That’s when the turtles will start to climb.’

A cool breeze had started to blow, setting Seema’s long hair aflutter. This was always a very pretty sight and Harish was lost for a moment. He was quickly brought back to the present, however, as the wind picked up speed and the tarpaulin started to flutter. ‘Help me,’ he called out to Seema, ‘before this damned thing flies away.’

They placed their haversacks on two corners and a couple of largish logs on the other edges, to hold down the blue sheet and then settled down on it themselves. It was Seema who broke the silence after a while. ‘You were so quiet, even contemplative, throughout the journey. Something on your mind? Is everything okay?’

‘Things are fine,’ Harish smiled and went quiet again.

Seema waited a while, hoping Harish would say something but there wasn’t a word. Finally, she cleared her throat deliberately, to gain his attention. ‘Harish, I,’ she paused, ‘I was wondering, if you got my letter?’

‘Letter? You wrote me a letter?’ he asked in a tone with genuine surprise.

‘Yes. Why are you surprised?’

‘No, I mean... yes. I got it. Of course I did.’

‘You did!’

‘Yes,’ Harish continued, ‘that postcard from Delhi with the dates of your arrival in Port Blair, and those too were wrong.’

‘Oh, that. Not the postcard... It was after that, a much longer letter.’ Seema paused and Harish waited for her to say something else. ‘Okay,’ she said dejectedly, ‘let it be then!’

‘Arre, what happened?’

‘No, Harish, it’s okay. I’ll just stroll along the beach for a while. You sleep now. Goodnight!’

She got up and walked away before he could say anything.

Harish was intrigued. ‘Seema’s written me a letter, and a long one? What could it have been? And why did she walk away like that? I’d better ask her tomorrow—don’t want so much hanging in the air,’ Harish thought as he sat staring at the sky and the ocean. In a while, he pulled out the mosquito net from his sack and tucked it under his head, zipped open his sleeping bag, snuggled in and closed his eyes. Seema, meanwhile, had reached the far end of the white sands. She stood here for a few minutes watching the waves before turning to walk back.

Note: The 'real' Southernmost General Stores of India was swept away in the 2004 tsunami.

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