Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Robinson Clueless

“OK boys, time to pack up. We’re leaving”, announced the (then) youngish Mutter. We were going to relocate to a township in Andhra, to join Appa who had transferred there. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere but in dear old Trivandrum. I'd miss my lovely school, the paddy fields, the gurgling canals, the beautiful Kovalam beach, and the army of kids in my heptalingual colony so much! I kicked up a row, threw tantrums and refused to move. After a while, when I realized nobody was paying any attention, I gave up. Several farewell dinners, filled autograph books and walks around the neighbourhood later, it was time to leave for good.

The parents had done a recon expedition a few months before, to check things out before our actual move. The house was smallish but the garden was huge, they said. I would love the wild life, the migratory birds and school, they said. Ah well, I thought. If I couldn't cut it, I could always run back and live with the Guptas next door, where I could play with the kids all day and live in aloo-kachoried splendour for the rest of my life, I thought.

Our new home was located in a township carved out of a 50 sq km forested island. It was surrounded by the gigantic Pulicat lake on three sides and the Bay of Bengal on the east. The journey itself was quite spectacular. We travelled to Madras and drove 100km to a small town at the edge of the Pulicat Lake. Beyond it was 16 miles of nothing. Just a straight road across the lake's tidal bed. At the end of the road was the township. The road now entered a pair of formidable gates manned by tough looking CISF jawans. The jawans stiffened, saluted smartly and let us through. Coming from communist Kerala, where people wouldn't even give the Maharaja of Travancore the time of day, this was quite startling. In the three years that I lived there, I could never quite get used to it. I'd always cower in the back seat when the jawans jumped to attention as we passed them.

The housing colony was spic and span - and slightly neglected, in the way only a central government township can be. Our home, the first in a line of several identical quarters, had scrubby jungle on two sides, and overlooked the colony on the other two. Poker-straight roads criss-crossed the colony. It had a school, a hospital, a guest house and two modest shopping centers. All houses had been issued the same plants by the horticulture department: Chickoo, sitaphal, guava and pomegranate. Those, the horticulture dept had decided, were the only species that could survive the sandy soil and the harsh coastal heat. They were right. Inspite of our best efforts, nothing else did, except the odd jasmine and a couple of Allamanda and Moonbeam plants.

At the other end of the housing colony was school. Sprawled over a few acres, with small quadrangles between classrooms, it housed all the children of the township. Coming from a fairly progressive school in Trivandrum, the strange rules of this school took me quite by surprise. There was a drill for everything. Students marched out of class into assembly every day, listened to the principal and marched straight back into their classrooms. Girls and boys sat on either side of a wide aisle, across which they exchanged notes and the ocasional fleeting glance. The kids had hardly any interaction with the outside world, and had evolved a culture of their own. Even the language they spoke was a strange pidgin English, strung together in Telugu idiom:
"What ra rey, haircut naat doingaa? Bush like looking it is."
"Shettup ra. Your grandmother squirrel catching my son."

A second pair of security gates led from the housing colony to the scientific installations dotted across hundreds of hectares of jungle. The jungle itself was like nothing I had seen before. Short thorny shrubs covered a sandy forest bed. Jamoon and palymyrah trees poked out through the shrubbery, and exploded in a torrent of berries every autumn. The only sources of water for all the jungle's resident feral cows, jackals and birds, were large marshy ponds called vaagus, that served as oases in the otherwise unforgiving landscape.

Occasionally, we would spot a tribal dwelling - an igloo shaped hut that you needed to crawl to enter. The few tribal settlements that inhabited the island before the government took over, were left alone. The government offered to build them better houses, but the tribals refused, choosing instead to live in the same way that they had done for thousands of years.

The feral cows on the island were quite a phenomenon by themselves. They were probably brought into the island centuries ago by nomadic tribes, and left to fend for themselves after they moved away. Some of the residents of the colony had managed to tame a few cows into coming to their homes every evening. The cows would agree to be milked in exchange for the day's leftovers. After being fed and milked, they'd swish their tails and amble peacefully back into the jungle, only to come back to the same houses the next evening. Definitely the most symbiotic human-animal relationship I had ever seen!

We would sometimes drive through the jungle, out to the pristine beaches on the other side of the island : A 50km coastline untouched by habitation. It was odd to see the sun rise over the sea here, unlike in the west coast where we were used to seeing it dive into the sea in the evening. We would gather seashells by the bucketful and toss them back on the beach, not knowing what to do with them. Tortoises nested on the quiet beaches during the season: major happy times for the few tribal settlements by the sea.

The sea itself was rough and unbatheable. Cyclonic storms would ravage the coastline periodically, causing massive destruction to everything in their path. The housing colony was situated as far inland as possible to avoid being wrecked by them, though a massive cyclone in 1984 almost managed to wipe it out.

Every month or so, we would cross the Pulicat lake to get to the mainland for shopping, tuition classes, or just for a break from the monotony of the colony. The Pulicat lake, dry and lifeless during summer, would come to life after the rains in October. Thousands of migratory birds would fly in from places as far as Poland, to roost on the lake bed. Crossing the dreaded 16km 'road to nowhere' (as Mutter delicately put it) would now be a treat. Acres of pink plumed flamingoes would plod through the floodwaters, patiently dredging the lakebed for crill. Pelicans would flap around clumsily, their beaks filled with fish. Painted storks, dabchicks, spotted ducks, cormorants, pond herons, and a myriad other birds would descend in flocks all over the lake and cover it in a carpet of pinks, browns, yellows and blues. Truly a spectacular sight.

After three years on the beautiful island, it was time to move again. And this time, to the youngish Mutter's home turf, good old Bangytown! While we were on the island, we felt cloistered, cut-off, and deprived of company. When we moved though, it wasn't without a tinge of regret. It was a tranquil, calm and spectacularly beautiful existence, that taught us much. For one, it made me the compulsive tree-hugger that I am today. I got to experience first hand, what most others can only see on tv, or in a glossy Salim Ali bird book. My botanical knowledge quintupled in three years.

And even today, if I can rattle off scientific names at a 100kmph in a heavy Telugu accent, it is because of my three years on the beautiful island of Sriharikota.

*Cartoon: Yentraa babu is the Telugu equivalent of 'What's up dude'.


rads said...

Yenti babu, Sriharikota ki intha buildup aa? :--))

Goody, as usual :)

usha said...

it actually pays to live a nomadic life, isn't it?

ur bachpan posts are the bestest, i say!

playbyrules said...

lucky you!sriharikota..CPWD housing complex!
a spin off from the usual,nice read.

Kamini said...

I really believe that under the veneer of the bantering young man, there lies the soul of a true poet. This was beautifully written.

anoushka taraporevala said...

hey biker dude: mighty miffed, me.

pri shri asks for growing up in jungle story and you oblige right away.

and here i am asking and asking (till the feral bovines of shar come home) for cantonment stories and once in ten months you will come up with one!

pshaw! naansense i say!

anoushka taraporevala said...

ps: kamini: you are right.

ggop said...

Love these memoirs of growing up in different places. I can so relate (tantrums and all) because my father had a transferrable job too.

Anonymous said...

Good one.. Didn't know Sriharikota was so beautiful and Usha I do agree that it pays to live a nomadic life. You learn and experience a lot more than you can if you live in one place all your life (or childhood).

narendra shenoy said...

*misty eyed* kamini, you're so right!
Biker dude, own up. You have a soul and people have seen it!

My b-in-law's friends keep going "kya re rey!". That's telugu, huh? Another mystery solved.

Lalita said...

You were lucky to live so close to nature, and we are lucky you are observant and articulate in talking about it. A lovely post, Bikerdude.

NK said...

Dude ......... I seriously think you should take up writing short stories and get it published. You could, with a little effort, be the next RK Narayan!!!

Bikerdude said...

rads: Build up eh? Lol. Much obliged that you read through till the end though. You've been there aa?

Usha: Yes full koi lauta de mere beete hue din type moment this was. It's fun to write about it. Thanks I say.

usha & nrimaami: This is true. I think you become a better (or more screwed in the head in my case) person when you're exposed to different cultures as a kid.

playbyrules: Thanks :) Err yes those govt quarters. Not my fondest memory for sure!

kamini, narendrashenoy, anoushka: Ahem. Poet eh? Honestly though, the only poetry that I can relate to is stuff that rhymes and you can recite to jhankar beats :P" Thanks muchly though! And yes "ra rey" is like the tamil "da dey", in case you hadn't figured it out :)

anoushka: ayyo I will write ma, wait wait. Pri shri knew I was planning to write this, which was why she asked. No, pri shri?

ggop: Thanks. Fortunately we only relocated twice, but I always felt sorry for the army kids that would have to go to a new place every couple of years..

lalita: Thanks! Yes was defly very lucky to spend my childhood in two of the greenest places in India!

NK: Thanks I say! Much honoured. Needless to say, it would take more than just a little effort to come remotely close to the likes of RK Narayan!

SloganMurugan said...

lovely. wish you had more pictures and a google earth capture of the island.

kavitha said...

woah country side with igloo shaped huts and ferel cattle lounging pretty! :)

Karan said...

Ok, I think I decided where I'm going for my next holiday - if and when that ever happens.

Oh and I've left comment for thee on Pri's blog. Plis to be seeing.

Siri said...

wow. Fantabulous BD!
All the green I remember seeing is from my graphic art screensaver. I should head out more often.

PizzaDude said...

Hats off to you BikerDude!! Amazing post. Had guessed half way through that you must be talking about Shriharikota. Didn't know it was an island though

narendra shenoy said...

To second nk, I think some kind of venture in the shape of book writing is very much in order. Just go to any bookstore and see what crap is written by Indian authors. They are either too heavy and verbose, or too dark or simply boring. There is virtually nothing that is fun to read. I don't mean funny. It doesn't have to be wickedly funny all the time in order to be fun to read.

Your stuff is such fun to read! Let's hope something happens along these lines.


Ajay said...

Awesome post... brought back my memories of an educational trip to Sriharikota in 2001. I loved everything about that place... the road which leads to the island... the wide white salt deposits... large flocks of Pink Flamingos... mighty bay of Bengal on the otherside... the unique vegetation, the simple living/lookin and inspiring scientists of SHAR.... the rocket launch pad... the white sandy virgin beaches (which we were refused to get down to)... the scientific installments.. everything..EVERYTHING....wish I could go visit once again...

kalpathi said...


Do u know to write or what! :D

Superbly written... I really liked the flow of thoughts, and identify with the frequent shifting every 3 years :) :)

NK said...

Well Biker Dude ...... now that 2 complete strangers have said it, I think you should look at writing professionally!!

RustyNeurons said...

wow!!! this post was simply superb..
Btw, those cows - are you serious about them coming over to say hi and get milked? Man, this sounds like a perfect theme to start an exciting adventure story for kids... And, like all others me too asking - pllllllsssssssss to be writing some stories..

Bikerdude said...

sloganmurugan: The island is off limits for photography unfortunately :(

kavitha: Thanks!

karan: Thu all the way you made me go and see that thuppu comment eh? Yes go I say, nice it is.

siri: Thanks :) Yes a trip to the outdoors is always good!

pizzadude: Thanks! Well its a semi-island actually, cos its connected to the mainland on the northern tip by a tenuous strip of land.

ajay: Oh you've visited, have you? Nice man. Best season to go is Nov-Feb though. Very hot or cyclonic during the rest of the year

kalpathi: Thanks !

narendrashenoy, nk: Ayyo blush what I say. This sort of drivel who will read :) Besides the old mutter has the journo angle covered so Im not sure I want to be a chip off the old block!

Rustyammowr a.k.a Gurgamini: Welcome, welcome :) I swear its true. In fact some cruel ppl had even branded those poor cows just incase anyone else got to them first. The cows didnt seem to mind though. Very bizarre indeed. PS: Kathe helakke/helskolokke naan yaavaglu ready :P

Naveen said...

dood..amazing as usual.. but how do u remember all these details mate? did u visit the place again or did u maintain a diary? i cant bloddy remember what happened 10 years ago!!

I love Lucy said...

"Your grandmother squirrel...."
err...minns what??

Poojitha said...

Born to be wild....maadu meikara payale.. gud one!!!

anoushka taraporevala said...

biker dude: how did the welcome sign on poona airport (your last post) undergo a correction? who is yr marathi teacher, the divine miss m, eh?

10yearslate said...


Idhaen-ree partiality madaak-hattheer alla. Naa phirst kaeLayn-ree Hubli Dharwad hogi bundh bareebekanth. Hoekkeen, hoekkeen anth heLi, yaar ivru, pri-bai, anoushka-bai ivr keLthaaranth goN haaktheeralla!

Hubli-Dwd yaavag hogtheer anth heLi mundhindh maathadoeN!

'G' said...

what A! wah beta. very well done, the bestest am thinking i've liked. uff soul shoal eveything everyone is saying is all correct.

Bikerdude said...

naveen: I guess it's easier to remember stuff in your childhood than mundane everyday stuff- and besides, this wasn't all that long ago, really :)

I love lucy: Hogi hogi adan hidkondideerenri. It is apadhhamu (bad words). Not to be mentioned in polite society :P

poojitha: Thanks ma, I saw your erummadu post and thought I'll also mention them in my blog :P

anoushka: My marathi teacher is a bespectacled Zoroastrian dowager with the most amazing collection of Antique Chwyneeese crockery. She just had dhansakh and onion raita yesterday and refused to give me any, grrrr :(

10yrslate: Aiyo byasara jigupse maadkobyaadri kanra. Nimma hesaru thara 10 years late aadru, khanditha hoge hogthene. Nanna muduk vyasnalli madakke enadru beko bedvo.

G: Thenk you beta. So lovleh of you to droap by and all that soht of thing eh what. mwah.

nigel jeejeebhoy said...

btw bikerdude, your parsi matron sounds most un-authentic. who would, in her right mind eat dahi (raita) with dhansak??????? i guess she meant she had onion cachumbar, which goes most divinely with dhansak. please ask, and revert, for the sake of the tummies of your manifold fans....

Anonymous said...

"Shettup ra. Your grandmother squirrel catching my son."...what in heavens?!!

Bikerdude said...

Nigel: I think my educative matroness added thair pachadi (raita) in a bid to be more inclusive, and let us Tam Brahm types slaver more over the meal that we missed.. slllurrrrp.

anonymous: Et tu brute. Please ask telugu speaking friends for meaning (only if you are on verrry informal terms with them)

Prats said...

I wonder what happened to my previous comment?? Looks like tis gone into the forests of Kota...

But honestly, i'm amazed at yuor flora and fauna knowledge...and now I know whom I should be appreciating.
But hair cut doneaaa?? or full juttu leavings?

Nancy said...

Those were the good old days...sighhhh.

Good usual. Been lurking around for a while now:-P.

MyFinalFrontier said...

I am from the place mentioned & I studied in the same school but I didnt notice that particular accent :)
ITs well written
& all what u wrote is true said...

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