An excerpt from The Last Wave - An Island novel
Chapter 22: Nesting Turtles
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 (61⁄2oN 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 recognized 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 recognized 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 organize 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 rain- filled 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.’
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