Saturday, November 29, 2014

A journey on the Andaman Trunk Road - The Last Wave

A Journey on the Andaman Trunk Road
An extract from 'The Last Wave - An Island Novel'
pg 228-230

...The bus groaned up a steep incline and then picked up speed as the road levelled out. They had been moving for about ten minutes when Seema noticed some movement among the trees just ahead. A young Jarawa woman with red cloth tied around her head and waist emerged from the roadside forest and started to run with the bus at its very front. The bus slowed down and the girl was now running alongside the driver. Seema pushed her head out through the railings of the window to see what was happening. Harish did the same and just about managed to catch the action. The Jarawa girl had stretched out her right hand towards the driver. A hand appeared from the bus and handed her a small packet. She transferred it to her left hand and stretched out her right hand once again. Another packet was passed on to her. Her hands dropped to her side and she moved away from the edge of the road, gazing intently at the shiny packets in her hand. It was a quick and efficient operation. The bus picked up speed again and left the Jarawa woman behind. It was evident from their shape, size and appearance that these were packets of paan masala and tobacco.
‘You saw that?’ Harish asked Seema, as they pulled their heads in.
‘Yes. This is crazy. The boards, the convoy, it’s all meaningless. Paan masala and tobacco to the Jarawas? It will ruin them.’
In a while, the entire convoy again did what it had been clearly instructed not to. It crossed a bridge over a gurgling stream of water and stopped as they negotiated a gentle bend. To be fair, they were forced to stop. They had finally caught up with the two tourist vehicles that had slipped ahead a short while ago. There was a big group of Jarawa here; the prime reason these visitors had undertaken this journey in the first place. The Jarawas had set up camp here only recently, attracted by a good combination of proximity to the road and access to a source of fresh water – the stream that the convoy had just crossed. This was the same group that Pintu had referred to and Justice Singh had also spoken about. All the occupants of the tourists vehicles were now out on the road, feverishly photographing the Jarawa and giving them the bananas and biscuits they had been carrying in the hope of this opportunity.
The look on Seema’s face was one of horror, and one that clearly indicated to Harish that something was about to happen.
‘What the hell is this?’ she fumed under her breath as she fumbled through the luggage-clogged passageway to the exit at the front of the bus. Harish followed. She headed straight for the policeman who sat unconcerned in the vehicle at the very front, chewing a mouthful of paan.

Seema stood glaring at the policeman, gritting her teeth, breathing fire. ‘What do you think you are doing?’ she shouted loud and angry, yanking the policeman out of his stupor. He looked up and down at Seema, stepped out from the vehicle, took a step forward and went ‘Thoo!’ The load in his mouth went flying through the air and created a dark, abstract stain as it hit the road with a splash.
‘Yes?’ he asked unconcerned, as Seema quickly took a small step back.
‘Chan . . . dra . . . shek . . . har Kumar,’ slowly and deliberately she read his name aloud from the badge on his chest. ‘How much money did these guys give you?’ She turned her contemptuous look at the driver of the vehicle. ‘Both of you are finished,’ she said with a bravado that had Harish biting his tongue.
He too was angry, but the absurdity of the situation made him want to laugh – this fuming young woman threatening a rifle- wielding, completely nonplussed policeman and a cowering driver who didn’t know what was hitting him. All the others had also realized that something was going on. They stopped what they were doing and turned towards where the action was now taking place.
‘Madam –’ the policeman began.
‘Shut up,’ she pounced on him furiously. ‘Listen,’ her finger was pointed accusingly at him, ‘I’ve got your name and these vehicle numbers. Just watch now.’
The impact was immediate and all those outside, the tourists, the photographers, even Chandrashekhar Kumar, quickly got back into their seats like little obedient children. Seema, however, was not done yet.
‘So, sir,’ her target now was the middle-aged, balding man who had taken his seat just behind Chandrashekhar Kumar. ‘Got good pictures of naked women?’ This wasn’t a question. ‘Big breasts? You like big breasts? You’ll frame it and put it alongside your wife’s picture, won’t you?’....
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Last Wave@The Earth Mela, Mumbai, Nov. 22

A presentation on the A&N Islands and The Last Wave in Mumbai
At the Earth Mela organised by Sprouts Environment Trust
10.30 am, Nov. 22, Saturday at the Maharashtra Nature Park, Dharavi

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Rediscovering Port Blair in 'The Last Wave - An island novel'

THE LAST WAVE - An Island Novel
Chapter 3
Seema's Return 
Pg 32-33
An excerpt...
...Seema’s homecoming was, from the beginning, a mixed bag of discovery and loss: losing Ahmed Mia forever, but just after rediscovering him, and through him, new nooks and recesses, entire hidden passages of a lavishly rich history. 

Delhi had been exciting but it could never be Port Blair. Delhi was a huge sprawl, soot-laden and suffocating, growing amoeba-like into land that extended infinitely on all sides. Port Blair was still small and compact, easily negotiable, eminently manageable, fresh and airy in a way that only small seaside towns can be. It urged you to breathe deeper and harder. 

Seema knew its little paths and corners better than she knew the lines on her palms. The Mountbatten Cinema with its wooden pillars and old world charm; the saw mill at Chatham where she had become addicted to the smells of freshly sawn timber; Foreshore Road from where ships could be seen entering the harbour as if in a 70 mm wide-screen movie; the marine workshops at Phoenix Bay where history could be held in your hands (her most prized find there was a 1931 lantern from a dismantled ship of German origin); the view of Ross Island from atop Cellular Jail; Japanese World War II bunkers that stood all over like forgotten sentinels; Port Blair’s own Marine Drive that went on and on till it reached Corbyn’s Cove at the other end. 
Homecomings allow an experience of change that is denied to those who never leave. Port Blair had changed significantly in the years Seema was away. It was like a little brat of a city now, discovering simultaneously the pains and the pleasures of growing up, forcing similar discoveries on those who cared for and lived with it; particularly for those who returned. It was far more crowded and chaotic than Seema remembered. There was an increasing restlessness – more vehicles, more speed, more movement, more action, more desire and greater ambition. The nights were longer, the shops bigger, the noises louder and the roads narrower. Garbage now accumulated on street corners and on the roads; dogs had multiplied in direct proportion to the spread of the dirt and filth (Port Blair had seen more cases of dog bites in the last three years than in the preceding thirty); previously unknown entities called beggars and pickpockets had begun plying their trade in the bazaar; street urchins now openly defecated in the overflowing British-era drains and traffic jams were a regular feature in Aberdeen Bazaar. Traffic snarls in Port Blair? Yes, all this and more in just a few years. 

Old wooden Mountbatten Cinema was about to go and a steel and glass structure of a shopping mall was to come up in its place. The old wooden State Secretariat had gone too; everything was being replaced by monsters of the modern age, concrete replacing timber with a rapidity that would soon send termites out of business...

 Cellular Jail, Port Blair

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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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Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Last Wave@Popular Book House, Pune

The Last Wave's now available at Popular Book House, Deccan Gymkhana, Pune

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Giant Leatherback in 'The Last Wave - an island novel'

THE LAST WAVE - an island novel

Chapter 22
Nesting Turtles
Pg 256-258

...‘Keep your distance or you’ll spook her,’ Harish whispered to Seema just as she was thinking of walking up to the animal. ‘This,’ he said, in a voice full of reverence and awe, ‘is what we came here for – the Giant Leatherback turtle, one of the greatest travellers of the world’s oceans, the gentlest giant if there ever was one and amongst the most vulnerable.’

Seema watched intently as the turtle dragged herself a couple of feet and stopped for rest. She was panting heavily. With every bit of air she inhaled, the bottom of her neck swelled like a small balloon. She exhaled, an equally laborious process, and then inhaled again. Then her whole body, nearly 400 kilograms of marine muscle, shuddered as the front flippers came into action. She dragged her body a couple of feet more and then stopped again to rest. ‘What effort,’ Seema thought to herself. She remembered seeing on the National Geographic, just a couple of weeks ago, an underwater film on corals that had some significant turtle sequences as well. The camera had followed a green sea turtle gliding gracefully and effortlessly amidst the incredible shapes and colours of that beautiful coral garden. To now see another turtle struggling so on land was a jolt. The turtle, however, was here of her own volition, the immutability of her instinct, of the timeless process of evolution. She was here to lay her eggs, she had to undergo this labour – she had no choice.

Three quarters of an hour of laborious digging, now with her rear flippers, created a perfect excavation, a cylindrical hole about a foot and a half deep. She then positioned herself on top of the nest hole and readied herself. Harish shone the light of his torch into the nest as the eggs started to pop out in a continuous succession. Sparklingly white, perfectly spherical, a little smaller than a tennis ball. Coated in a sticky, slimy fluid, they fell slowly in ones and twos. Winbrite and his team had also arrived, careful to approach from behind and not anywhere in the line of sight of the huge creature. An error here and she’d be spooked; all the labour wasted as she followed her instinct and returned to the safety of the sea, her eggs unlaid.

The team were an experienced lot. As the eggs began to fall, one of them sprawled on the sand, stomach down. He stuck his hand into the nest and began to bring out the eggs. These were then carted away immediately to the fenced hatchery further up the beach, where they were laid back into pits similar to the one the turtle had excavated. This had to be done to protect the eggs from being poached, particularly by the feral dogs that had proliferated here in recent years. By the time the turtle had finished laying all her eggs – a total of 101 – Winbrite’s team had successfully carried all the eggs away, to a safer place.

Unaware of the benevolent designs of the people standing behind her, the turtle began the reverse process. Using her rear flippers, she began to pull sand back into the nest hole that should have held the eggs. The nest hole filled up in a few minutes and then she began her laborious crawl back towards the ocean, leaving her eggs to their fate. This is where the sea turtle was different from the crocodile. It was not in her code to be the protective, aggressive mother. She’d done the best she could, and the rest was to be left to nature and the elements.

So far, Seema had been completely engrossed in the activity of the turtle. She had taken notice of every flick of the flippers, every breath, every single groan that emitted from somewhere deep within the creature. Now, as the turtle headed back, Seema was overwhelmed. She stood for a moment, tilted her head up a little to look at the sparkling sky, opened her arms to embrace the heavens above and took a deep breath, then another, and yet another. On this remote beach of soft white sand, on this magnificent, mysterious night, she had just had a rare privilege. An ancient creature, the renewal of life, an extraordinary event; she was grateful to be alive.

‘Seema,’ Harish’s voice came wafting through the moist breeze, from the direction in which the turtle had just headed. ‘Come here quickly.’

She trotted across to a point just above the waterline, where the ocean waves thrashed tirelessly at the bottom of the beach. At the water’s edge here, the turtle had sensed that extra bit of moistness in the sand below her. This seemed to bring additional life into the tired body – very much the traveller who was now in sight of her destination. She waited for the next offering from home, another gently lapping wave that just about reached her neck. It was precisely the vitalizer she needed. There was extra energy in those tired flippers as she vigorously hauled herself down the final gentle slope. She’d covered a few feet by the time the next wave came in. Her pace quickened, aided perhaps by the fact that she was now on sand that had gone soft and gooey with the water that was churning underneath her. She was completely engulfed even as this wave withdrew, and was much deeper in the water by the time the next one came along. Harish and Seema walked as far as they could into the water, trying to keep pace with the turtle, holding hands to keep their own balance in the midst of the tireless waves. Finally, they could go no further. They stood silently, watching the retreating hump of the turtle’s wet back as it glistened in the white light of the soft moon. Then she was gone.

The Giant Leatherback leaves behind her flipper marks as she returns to the ocean after nesting

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