Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Karen Dungi - Extract from The Last Wave

'The Karen Dungi'

Extract from the 'The Last Wave - An Island Novel',
Pgs 116-118

The vessel was fully ready in four days. Christened Mugger after David’s pet passion, the dungi was a new acquisition for the Institute and perfect for the work to be undertaken. It was deep-sea worthy, and its nominal draught ensured at the same time that it could negotiate shallow coral reef areas and enter mangrove creeks with ease. The dungi was an incredible piece of Karen skill and craftsmanship – efficient and sturdy, yet simple. It had multiple local names too: Karen dungi, in recognition of the community that created these; engine dungi as it was now powered by a diesel engine; and bonga dungi, because the hull of the boat was a dugout made from a specially chosen log, the bonga, of a tropical tree. The Karen name for it was khlee, but it was rarely used by anyone.
Uncle, his nephew and chief assistant Popha, and others at the Institute worked hard to get Mugger ready for the survey. Final preparations now included stocking up provisions.
Early on the fifth day, the staff of the Institute were seen going up and down loading the dungi, bearing all that was needed for the trip. There were cans of diesel, kerosene and drinking water, a sack of rice, two smaller sacks (one filled with onions and potatoes and the other with dal), a bag full of packets of masalas (salt, sugar, red chilli powder, turmeric), pickles, matchboxes, two bottles of refined groundnut oil, a bundle of firewood, two large aluminium vessels for cooking, two aluminium kettles, some plates, glasses and spoons, small lanterns, torches and two boxes of cells for the torches. There were several sheets of plastic and a second tool kit, in addition to one that always lay in the dungi.
(...)They were finally ready to go. Harish climbed into the dungi, followed by Seema. She did a quick survey of the entire set-up. Mugger was a largish vessel, about fifty feet in length and ten feet at its widest. Right along the edge of the vessel, nailed into its sides were flat slats of timber, two feet wide – benches that served as seats during the day and bunks at night. The front end of the boat tapered gracefully towards the bow, and a crudely crafted iron anchor tied at the end of a long yellow nylon rope lay on the deck planks here. A cane framework had been created over the dungi and two huge sheets of thick blue plastic were being tied across it to create a roof. 

Everything was tucked away under the benches on either side. Harish, Seema and David shoved their haversacks under the benches, and Uncle came over to cover them with a sheet of plastic. What both Seema and Harish found amusing was that the inflatable that they had zoomed around in a few nights ago had been lifted as a single piece, and placed at the front end of the dungi. It fitted in snugly, as if it had been configured exactly for the space in which it now lay. The dungi, which had appeared rather compact and not very big from the outside, now seemed like a rather large vessel.The rear end of the vessel was equally interesting. At its extreme end, just before the rudder, was another little canopy, this one for those who manoeuvred the boat. Just ahead and occupying pride of place, about four fifths of the way down the back of the dungi, were the two Kirloskars: huge, greasy, green diesel engines secured with heavy bolts on a specially laid foundation at the bottom of the boat. The engines were sturdy, relatively inexpensive and easy-to-maintain contraptions that boatmen in the islands swore by. For the Kirloskars, engineering giants based in the western region of mainland India, these engines and the Andaman Islands were unlikely winners – this was where they had sold the maximum number of units in the last five years. 
Competition in the form of the Chinese Jiansu engine had made its appearance, however. It was a much better machine in that it was less noisy, better damped against vibration and much faster. Everyone in the Andamans knew about them, thanks to the many Burmese, Thai and Indonesian fishing boats that the Jiansus powered into these waters for very productive though illegal fishing. The higher cost of the Jiansu, small as the gap was, had proved the new engine’s stumbling block, and for that reason alone the Kirloskars were still holding out in these islands. 

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