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'.