Monday, December 20, 2010

In arms of adventure

The travel from Delhi to Andaman took a month. I was glad to have free vacation during the move. Dad had bought me a cycle, only too large. Moreover, someone asked me, how I intended to learn to ride. Port Blair was mountainous.

Port Blair was an interesting place in 1975 for a 5th grade student. My first rides were near the wharf, which was the only nearby flat ground. I climbed on a small boulder and mounted on the seat and gave a heave. Cycling was easy, if I could balance. With a few turns, I was close to the jetty. There was a strange smell of diesel mixed with rotten wood.
Two frigates were lined up and the flag came down at the honk of the bugle. It was sunset and I had to push my bike up the slopes.

Port Blair seemed like a lot more fun than Delhi. I had lost my best friend Bhasu in Delhi and I had to yet make new acquaintances. I decided to write to Bhasu. I was missing the Television serials Fireball XL5 and Robin Hood which but I had new assets; Hilly terrain, a bike, a sea shore.

I had tough time at school to meeting “new” expectations.
The teachers were more strict than the Delhi school. Cane was used freely. The name of “Ram Milan Singh” struck terror in classrooms.
My acquaintance with “Ram” was through my bad handwriting. The change of schools challenged me to use the pen as the weapon instead of the pencil I was much used to.
On receiving the juiciest I found that this was just the name of the cane.
Usually, the class monitor was asked to fetch 'Ram Milan Singh' and I pitied that guy.

Kids in the class were friendly. A mix of different states that gelled very well,a perfect cosmo India. Hindi sounded strange, when the local kids used Karta, Mangta..; no gender bias .

Most of the class toppers were sincere with homework, notebooks beautifully underlined with sketch pen, very colorful; almost to the level of project work.
I could not cope with the level of tidiness, nor the punctuality. My parents unwilling to believe that investment in sketch pens fetched better marks. The beauty of the Andamans filled up the void and frustration at school.

There were unexplored coves, Lakes around my place. A Japanese bunker. Studies took time and I was not moving a notch.
With Asterix and Tintin comics, a whole new world of neat animation opened for me and my interest in Phantom and Mandrake comics died. Treasure island was still a favorite. David Copperfield moved me to tears.
Other kids from Mainland used to talk about Disney movies.
I had never seen a cartoon movie.

Arindam was my best school friend. He was fun loving and adventurous. Quite talkative contrary to me. His elder brother Arvind, was on the serious side, but the trio had splendid times.
Another colleague, Om Prakash, was the local adventurer. His dad worked in the Fire brigade.

At school we could hear explosions. On inquiry, we found that there were mines and bombs left by the Japanese during their occupation during World war 2. The Indian Army was in process of diffusing them. The weather on the islands had corroded the shell.
It was prime talk at school ; apart from recent expeditions by Indian Archaeology attempting to be-friend the Sentinel Tribals. A senior’s dad was shot at by the Sentinels with a poison arrow and had to lose an arm.

I thought of exploring the Japanese bunker someday. I talked about it with Om, Arvind and Arindam, who were very keen.
On a Sunday I was trying rant my Sanskrit , the school colleagues dropped by my house. We sneaked out, climbed down the rocky shore.

The sea water was at high tide and had cut away several places, that were usually accessible. I had not given a thought to the tide.
We waded to the bunker. The bunker had two compartments we crawled into the outer one. The floor was caked with dust, deserted for a long time.
The inner compartment was locked by a door. Om pulled out a pocket knife and struggled with the lock.
As the door opened in front of them lay a heap of Earth, some wires and overwhelming rotten smell.

If the bunker was indeed mined, a step would blow us off. We discussed the consequences. 

No one knew what lay beneath the grit. There were Indian Oil fuel tanks a hill. We decided to pull away, satisfied by our desire to break into a bunker. Next day at school was interesting as the class listened to the details of the ‘expolit’.

The jungle in the tropics was dense. The vines twisted to form tunnels. I often ventured into deeper forests.
My encounters with snakes were rare. It was one creature I detested for its slimy form and unpredictable course. The Cashew fruit was available in plenty and the kids used to feast, eventually staining the shirts.

There were few Guava trees around the colony and it gave me immense pleasure to climb up a tree unnoticed and steal ripe fruit that was out of reach. On one unfortunate venture I was bee stung in the eye, as the bee guarding the guava disagreed with my selfish motive.

The jungle had unknown creatures. At home, we used to breed chicken for eggs. Somehow, the tribe was reducing every day. Mom showed me a Ghorpad that lay underneath the bushes. The hen eater, slithered off into the dense foliage, at the blink of the eye.

Centipedes, as thick as a finger, were common. Local name Kan-khajura meant, it could crawl into the ear at night. Sleeping on ground was avoided. My toddler brother was and expert in smashing them with slippers.

We had a small garden for vegetables.
The vegetables from the ship were a week old and poor quality. Fish was available cheap and plenty.
The common pest in the garden was snails. The snail conch was as large as my fist. There was a rumor that the Japanese had bred them as a delicacy.

The snails had to be collected in a bucket. They melted into a soupy liquid, as salt was sprinkled over them.

A Krait had made itself comfortable in the Water valve pit, till it met its usual fate with a human encounter.

My trips to the Rock shore were not a secret. Someone had informed my parents.
A few friends had an idea to build a raft. There were plywood planks that were tied together.
The entire 'ship building' process had to go unnoticed, if the news of the newer exploits leaked, the venture would sink.

The raft was complete and could seat two kids at a time. As we launched our first trip across the local pond, the raft  sank almost immediately. The trips to the beach had improved swimming. Through the shipbuilding venture, we found a new pass time. Swim in the pond. The slip out procedure was simple; mostly at afternoon in holiday season. Wrap a towel and undergarments, hide it under arm and slip out of the house at scheduled time. It was all boy’s effort for complete secrecy.

I was waiting for others to join and they had not been punctual on that particular day.
I desperately hoped that no one was caught or had spilled the beans. I walked to the pond alone. As soon as I began to unbuckle, I saw ripples in the water. A very long black snake slithered over the surface of the water and was rapidly charging towards him.
 It was scary, when I realized, it would have been lurking around all these days probably with other equals.

In the evening meeting, I narrated my experience others and the rafting venture sank three days after it was floated.

The school trip to Mt Harriet was eventful.  The class got on to the ferry boat, went to a plywood factory and later climbed the highest peak near Port Blair.
A senior boy whipped the head of a viper, as it was close to make its strike on another kid.
A Viper bite on top of a mountain was fatal; it would take almost 3 hours to get him to a hospital. The boy became a hero. The Viper ended in Formalin jar in the Biology lab.

The summer vacation started and dad announced his transfer to Pune. It meant that I had no chance to say goodbye to school friends!
This was sudden and unexpected. Hopefully, Pune was another good place too. I recalled few cousins of around my age.
I would miss the sea a lot.

I went back to the rock shore for a last time. I had a last look at the bunker. (It had a new lock.) The tide was ebbing away and I could cross to the rock island with a cave. I sat there alone to hear the last bugle call from the naval ship.
I slept early for the morning flight.