Friday, March 20, 2015

When Dr Ravi Sankaran made an appearance in 'The Last Wave'

When Dr Ravi Sankaran made an appearance in 'The Last Wave'

An excerpt 
Pgs 14-16

The rest would largely be clubbed under the category of field biologists – the dominant crowd here. There was the mercurial Dr Ravi Sankaran, one of the country’s finest ornithologists, who had made an international name studying the little-known birds of these islands. His was the first comprehensive study of the endemic Nicobari megapode, a bird that scrapes together a mound of earth and decaying matter for a nest in the low-lying coastal forests in the Nicobar Islands, and then the edible nest swiftlet that builds its nest in dark, inaccessible caves with nothing but its own saliva.

Whenever Sankaran was at the Institute, conversations would inevitably turn to birds, like they would to snakes when Gokul Mehta was around. Mehta was a man obsessed with snakes; the deadlier and more venomous it was, the greater the challenge and thrill. Unlike Sankaran for whom the study of birds was as much passion as profession, snakes were a hobby for Mehta. The only hint of what his actual profession was, lay in the thick gold chain that hung around his neck and an equally thick gold bracelet that circled his wrist. Mehta belonged to a rich goldsmith family and had inherited one of the biggest jewellery chains in Mumbai’s famed Zaveri Bazaar. He sold gold and gold ornaments for eleven months a year. In July, when the monsoons slammed his part of the world, he would pack his bags and embark on his annual, month-long pilgrimage to these islands – to the also rain-soaked, but far more interesting, slushy, leech- and mosquito-filled forests through which he trekked to bag, pickle and study snakes. His interest in the discussions in the quadrangle was aroused only when snakes, or at the very least, reptiles and amphibians were discussed. Nothing else ever seemed to excite him. If he stayed on, it was only by virtue of his innate politeness. 
There were women too, though only occasionally. There was one who had studied bats and owls, another, tourism in the islands and a third, a young American marine biologist, who had almost drowned while studying coral reefs in the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Wandoor. The latest among the visitors was Seema Chandran, a Port Blair girl who had recently returned to the islands for her Ph.D. 

Finally, there was also the staff. The abiding presence here was that of Uncle Pame, the old Karen man from Webi, near Mayabundar on Middle Andaman Island. The Karen were a small community of people that had been first brought to the islands from Burma more than eight decades ago, and Webi was the first settlement that they had created on arrival. A majority of this community of a few thousand, Uncle Pame’s large extended family included, continued to live in Webi. Unlike most of his generation, however, Uncle had moved out to explore the larger world. He was the first man David had recruited when the Institute came into being. An islander in the truest sense of the word, Uncle was in many ways the local guide and expert, knowledgeable about both the oceans and the forests in an unparalleled manner. A calm, quiet man with a dreamy look, he would often be found sitting in the quadrangle alongside the researchers. His face was like a sheet of paper, except for a broad protrusion that passed for a nose. The two cheekbones stood out sharply, framing two narrow slits of dark eyes that were almost lost in that big round face. 

Combined with a constant look of languor, the eyes gave him a mysterious, unfathomable appearance. It was impossible to look at Uncle’s face and say what was on his mind. Unobtrusive and apparently unconcerned with what was going on about him, Uncle would sit at the table in the quadrangle with his peg of whisky or rum or whatever the drink of the evening was and listen intently, staring aimlessly into the space in front of him. For any person who was new to the setting, it would appear as though Uncle saw, heard or registered nothing; that he was floating on his drink in a world entirely his own. But those who had been around longer, even for a week, knew that was not true. Uncle spoke rarely, but his comments – suffused as they were with wit, astuteness and wisdom – said more than the most voluble among their company.
Harish took an instant liking to this old Karen man. 
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