Another boy is born. Another good spell of fishing. Another goat is being led, bleating in confusion because of all the children milling around it, to the slaughter. The tide brings them in, these worshippers and thanksgivers. Before the tide is out again, retreating sulkily into its midday corners, the goat will bleat once more on the block and feel the cool, sharp, winter air enter in delicious gaspfuls into its lungs, filling them loosely, hopelessly, as it pronounces its mute, purifying prayer, blessing the altar, and the island, and the thanksgivers, and me. The next tide will lead them out again, back into the waters whence they came, taking with them their revelry and their pious prayers, their sacrificial knives and their runny-nosed children, and I will be left alone with the island, staring out into the blue of the late morning, looking for dolphins once again.
Paradise in the Wild
A Source of Solace
Sighting the Ocean
The Ocean in Verse
Hunt for Indian Tiger
Crabs. There is something more than slightly surreal about crabs. They are like some joke Dali dreamt up, come alive. The joke is black. As you move through the muck of the mangrove mires with bare feet and gritted teeth, they grab your toes with their joke pincers and, with their joke eyes, stare expressionless at you as you swear at them with words that arise from the inventiveness of pain. They reach for your toes with a little sensual tickle, a small feather-touch of love. With artistic precision they clamp down on the chosen toe and, with a delicate cocking of a non-existent ear, they listen for the undignified cry of indignant agony. Dada laughs. I am waist-high in the living muck. My crab-catching rod hangs useless from my shoulder and my foot is bleeding lightly. One crab pincer is in my hand. The crab has lost an appendage but has firmly won the war. In my defeat I leave the creek as fast as I can and char the trophy pincer on the driftwood fire. The meat heals my throbbing toe and I can smile again. I can kill no other creature as easily as I can kill a crab today. Defeat lasts longer than victory.
The sea is an old hag and she grumbles to herself incessantly. I lay down by her one day as she washes the milk cartons and mineral water bottles, sacks of soya and slicks of oil onto the sands of Pirotan, and listen to her disquieted mumbling. It is a little difficult to hear it at first, for she roars as the waves ride to land and she hisses as the surf hits the sand, but below these Wagnerian shows of grandeur, is her unhappy murmur, sad and faithless, like the Sibyl of Cumae, having exchanged her honour for ageing immortality, asking an unheeding Apollo to grant her death. In her dotage, helpless and feeble, she retches a rubber tyre on the shore and, almost ashamed of her vomit, hastily pulls her surf pseudopodia away from the offensive expulsion. Her wordless plea, reduced to a meaningless grumble, rumbles quietly in my ear as I walk back to Dadi and dinner, dodging the plastic bottles and the broken seaweed, and watch the great God Apollo sear mercilessly into the waters once again.
Strangely, there are tears in my eyes. The reef is barren and blue and stretches endlessly out in front of me. Through a well of tears my universe is a fluid, fragile place full of blues and browns that flow into one another without respect for the separateness of entities. The lighthouse, four kilometres away on the shore, is a tall melting candy, striped with black and white and topped with red. I watch as the beacon melts slowly, gracefully, till, in one silent cataclysm of a tear, it dissolves into pure colour and a little ephemeral stream cleans the crust of salt in thin lines off my cheeks. The sun is in my eyes. I wipe away the watery universe with the back of my hand, the world sets quickly to neat edges and safe rigidity, and I cast my quadrat once again. Twenty quadrats are my goal today and I have only managed eleven. In my mouth, the taste of four cups of tea hangs heavily on my tongue in a thick yellow coat of tannic acid and goat's milk. I rub the muscle against my palette, and spit out the poison. It is late. The tide is already beginning to get that uneasy feeling, collecting its resources for the race back to shore. I pretend not to notice. My unbidden tears have exhilarated me and I continue to cast my quadrat near the crest of the reef. Only when I see the sea-scum begin its ride on the incoming tide do I realise that I am in trouble. I have 98 quadrats in my record book and I was hoping to reach a hundred today. The tide is rising above my calves now. I guess I will have to leave it for tomorrow.
I force myself to think of other things, of the soaring seagulls and fish frying in the Porta-cabin, of the letters I have to write and of Folk Roots on BBC; all this to prevent me from thinking of the rising waters. I begin to trot as best I can back to shore. My shirt is wet with the urgent splashing of my feet and I trip madly over coral boulders, cutting myself on their skeletons. The tide is milling around my waist now and I think that I must somehow ensure that my camera bag remains dry. I shorten the strap, till it sits uncomfortably under my armpit. Once I cross the moat of the reef, I will be safe.
The fish have begun returning with the tide and I see brilliant slivers of shine skit on the surf. My camera bag is on my head now and I feel panic, distant and gentle. The fragile, watery universe that I wiped so carelessly on my sleeve mills angrily around me now, brown and grey-green, with a power I did not see in my tears. Sea in my eyes. My world is water. Everything is dissolving like the lighthouse now. Panic is not distant or gentle anymore. And then, I am clear of the coral moat, on the sandy stretch, and though the sea is still rapidly rising, I know I can make it back. The beacon looms, solid and reassuring ahead of me. Dada stands on the shore with his cap in his hand and a stern reprimand in his eyes. I eat my fish in silence. A bone catches in my throat firmly, solidly. One entity, resisting another entity. I smile a small smile and Dada looks at me, askance.
Many alien, spiny fish with large eyes are attacking me. With teeth specialised to munch on the calcium carbonate of coral skeletons, they gear up now to tackle soft flesh and chewy bone. They begin sculpting my nose down to a more respectable size. Sweat pours down my face and I awake to a new day at Narrara and brush away the tiny bugs that are nibbling at my nose. Eyes. Many eyes are staring at me and for a while, still in the middle-universe between sleep and wakefulness, I start and sit up in my sleeping bag as the eyes rapidly evolve from fish to reptile to child, and the faces resolve into a wordless question. I am the alien being here, an extra-terrestrial with a strange North-Face tent-vessel and Nikon binocular-zap-gun. I try to smile, but my facial muscles newly awake must look like an evil grimace. The faces retreat from the entrance of my tent and with nervous, defensive giggles tear across the little island of Narrara to the mess tent where Amba Ben is standing with hands firmly on hips as she conducts the breakfast ritual once more for these new inductees into the educational camp.
Soojee, powha, a mugful of tea. What's the difference between a dolphin and a whale? Which was the first Marine national park to be established in India? How many kilometers of coastline does Gujarat have? Follow, follow, follow us into the waters of the reef. Look. A puffer fish. Look. An octopus. Look. A brittle star. No. Do not pull off its arms. Look. A coral. It lives. Look a giant sea anemone. See how it recoils when I stamp it with my foot. Now you try it. We need to conserve this wealth. See. This is Rohan. He has come all the way from Dehradun to study our reefs. Eat your lunch. Wash your plate clean. Do your bit for conservation. Remove all the algae you see on the breathing roots of those little mangroves that we have planted. The next tide will bring back the algae but then, there is another batch arriving tomorrow. Good. You have been educated. Gloria in excelcis. Two rupees please. Tell them back at school how good it was. And they are off, packing their dead reef specimens and their proud puberty into crowded hired buses. They give the island small respite and then a new batch arrives and stares, open-mouthed at me, the resident alien on this alien beach. With castles and feet they tear at Narrara's frail skeleton of sand, burying it in a sea grave, one tiny bit at a time.
Human life stains the planet. Wherever man touches the earth, a faint, indelible, ghost-grey print is left. It is man's signature, and no other animal leaves it behind. Where many feet have crossed the same spot of earth, the grey turns to silver and then to black. These signs of human passage surround me now as I sit atop the lighthouse watching the sun dip into the horizon and the warm sea breeze bring the tide in for the night. The long dusk of late winter drains the colour from the land; a grainy, 400 ASA scene slowly forms before my eyes. The sun, in its death, is white, pure and untouched by any human hand. The gulf is green-grey, pale and lightly tainted by man for the ocean is large and it dilutes the human stain.
The shore is silver with use and far out in the distant horizon of Jamnagar, a black cloud of humanity surrounds the cityscape. A lone white jackal trots out onto the silver shore and peers at the water and, satisfied with the progress of the tide, he ambles back into the pale mangroves to catch a few more crabs before the waters rise once again. I could swear he left behind a thin white trail of paw-prints on the silver shore, but the light is fading and the grain is increasing. Now the first few stars appear, glistening, distant, white, and pure darkness settles in shades over my little island. The city in the distance is repelling the virgin night with all the power at its disposal - neon and sodium vapour light up the blackness of the human presence, keeping away the blackness of day's end. Now the lighthouse is lit and the kerosene throws its grey beam of human darkness into the night in a wide circle over the waters. I tread down the polished steps, leaving ghost prints on the banister and stairs, and walk out to be enveloped in another Pirotan night.
They need an article for the newsletter about my "experience in the Gulf of Kutch". How am I to order it I wonder? Form is everything. Content is banal. The Popular Article (though here at the Institute it is never spoken of with the capitals), is easy enough I guess. A few purple descriptions of the sunsets, a little amusing incident, stale with retelling, a few anecdotal comments and observations and hope to god that no one figures out that you have surreptitiously included a little sermon of conservation in the piece. It will get past easily enough. Just tell the lay what you have to say. Leave out the stats. Avoid the references. Include the deep dark forest scenes. You know what I'm talking about, its all old hat - I don't have to tell you about it. "How I kicked the lion's never-you-mind". That's what they want, those spectral popular-article-readers. But then what DO I want to say to this ghost reader? Nothing at all. I have no message to deliver and no story to tell.
I went to a strange and alien place. There I stayed for better or for worse for six months. I ate fish and crabs. Lots of them. Once, when I had not yet got used to the changing tide patterns, I miscalculated the rising tide and got myself into trouble. It never happened again. Once I swam with two dolphins off the Pirotan shore. It never happened again. I ate more fish. I learnt to love the place. I learnt to treasure the 'unpeopledness' of the island. I learnt to loathe the filth that littered its beaches every day. I grew in admiration and love of my field assistant and his wife for their childlike simplicity and guileless ignorance. These islands remain. Make of them what you will.
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.