Sunday, August 4, 2013

Insurgency On The High Seas
The word pirate has this misleading habit of conjuring up illusions of a colorful character perhaps even a lovable rogue with a salty tongue and a jaunty air. The International Maritime Board (IMB), however dryly defines piracy as the act of boarding any vessel with intent to commit theft or any other crime and intent to use force for the same.
Although piracy on the high seas has been around for centuries, it reduced drastically during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to increased patrolling by naval ships, introduction of legislative measures and better administration of islands and ports.
The resurgence of piracy in the late 20th century coincides with a worldwide reduction in naval fleets along with a corresponding increase in mercantile shipping. Naval ships are expensive to maintain and operate and require support bases located in the general area of interest, with a continuous military presence, all of which became politically and economically unviable in the post-colonial world. The reasons for the emergence of insurgent groups are the same all over the world. Exit of colonial powers from underdeveloped countries, leaving behind a poor political and administrative system ill equipped to compete on a global level, the entry of vested interests and the emergence of power factions armed with weapons funded by multinational corporations seeking to exploit natural resources leading to civil strife and a breakdown of law and order.
Somalia’s is a classic case where sea-pirates run virtually unchecked in the absence of any form of governmental control. Civil war has raged for twenty years and the federal government controls only a small part of territory around the capital while the coastal regions remain autonomous. Already poor and war torn, the region suffers from repeated droughts. Tagged as a failed state, the fact remains that Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa and sits at a strategic position dominating the entry into the Indian Ocean from the Gulf of Aden. The absence of a Somali navy or Coast Guard has reportedly been exploited by European firms to dump toxic wastes, effectively killing off the livelihood of local fishermen. Elsewhere, foreign fishing vessels have illegally harvested the locals’ fishing grounds. Initially grouped together to fight off illegal foreign trawlers, the fishermen, who included former soldiers, soon found an easier catch, the large numbers of slow moving, unguarded merchant vessels carrying high value cargo and passing fairly near their coast. Justifying their attacks as retribution for illegal dumping and stolen fish, they also soon discovered that ship owners were more than willing to pay for the release of their crew and cargo and that piracy was far more lucrative than fishing.
According to the Piracy Reporting Centre of the IMB, out of 346 attacks reported worldwide, 194 have occurred near Somalia. As on date there are 15 vessels and 277 hostages held by pirates awaiting payment of ransom.
Although naval forces from various countries have been deployed off the Horn of Africa (HOA), for the last three years, their presence has had only partial success. There is no doubt that naval ships have been successful in disrupting pirate attacks and have escorted many merchant ships to safety. Naval Special Forces deployed in the area have successfully rescued crew members from pirates, capturing a number of pirates in the process, who have been sent to jails in the captors’ countries. However their success in extracting ransom payments for captured ships has ensured that pirate gangs are never short of recruits. That the pirates have begun to see themselves in a patriotic mould is evident from names like National Volunteer Coast Guard and Somali Patriotic Movement adopted by pirate gangs.
Arming of merchant ships and other defensive measures like travelling in convoys has been debated at length, however the discussion has been complicated by the fact that a large number of ships fly flags of convenience to circumvent the regulations of the owner’s country and any political consensus on security is usually defeated, though it is reported that recently some such flag states have agreed on certain measures. The fact that even large merchant ships are sparsely manned and are unable to maintain continuous all round vigil, has further emboldened pirates to attack with impunity.
Owners of ships carrying inflammable or dangerous cargo have been understandably reluctant to allow armed guards on board due to the inherent risks involved with gunfire. There is also the issue of the effectiveness of one or two guards armed with rifles pitted against a number of pirates in speedboats armed with heavier weapons like rocket launchers that can punch a hole in a ship’s side. Arming of merchant ships always runs the risk of pirates raising the levels of violence which merchant ships will not be able to match. Further, there are legal issues involved in carrying automatic and military pattern weapons in the territorial waters of nations that do not permit them. The recent killing of Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala, involving the Italian marines posted on board MV Enrico Lexie as anti-piracy guards, brought in another dimension of legal propriety, diplomacy and international relations, into an already complex situation.
Recent incidents of piracy have shown that Somali pirates are moving farther afield, away from their home coast right up to the Lakshadweep Islands. This could be an indication of the pressure applied by increased naval patrolling off the HOA, or could be increased boldness on their part. Either way, these actions spell trouble for India since interrogation of captured pirates has indicated a tie-up between the Somali Al Shabab militia and the LeT. There is also evidence that pirates have links with the Al Qaida. India’s stakes in the Offshore Development Areas in the Indian Ocean are extremely high and we can ill afford to let down our guard.
If we attempt to do the math, we shall see that the numbers keep piling up. Piracy has pushed up the cost of insurance premium for cargo transiting piracy prone areas. Merchant ships are forced to hire extra crew members to do lookout duty in their hitherto ignored stern sectors. Some have been forced to hire armed private security guards. Increased naval patrolling has driven up the operating costs of navies who have also been compelled to acquire additional craft to replace those now almost permanently engaged in anti-piracy patrols. And still, all this is not enough.
The oceans of the world are simply too vast, the assets requiring protection far too many and widely dispersed, while the resources available at the disposal of governments are simply too few. Then there are the complex legal issues involved with providing security, for instance, for a ship that flies a flag of one nation, has an owner from another, carries a cargo exported by a third nation, bound for yet another country and manned by a crew that could be a mix of various nationalities. There is also the issue of disposal of captured pirates. The question of what is to be done with suspected pirates who may be observed at sea, but not actually engaged in acts of piracy, begs answering.
Although Somalia has reportedly permitted navies of some countries, including India, to enter their territorial waters in pursuit of pirates, most countries shy away from taking direct action within another country’s jurisdiction for fear of collateral casualties and thereafter getting involved in lawsuits and that country’s issues. Most countries would rather avoid the hostile tag that would almost certainly be applied to them, following their killing of another country’s citizens on their soil, in the course of what would probably be short term gains, since it opens up their own civilians to reprisal attacks.
The similarity between piracy off the Horn of Africa and the Naxal problem in India is startling. Both are the result of economic exploitation of the peasantry. Police action in both cases has not been effective. Both groups see themselves in a righteous, ideological light and both have the potential for linking up with terrorist groups. Importantly, both prey on transport vehicles plying highways, albeit of different kinds. The solutions in one case may therefore also provide lessons for the other.
In an increasingly commercially driven world, where the thirst for energy products has forced countries to depend on ships plying extended supply routes, nations are forced to regard the demands of pirates as mere operating costs. Therefore while to some, piracy may appear to warrant military action, other countries lacking military wherewithal may simply work out a monetary arrangement. A lasting solution is however far more complex and lies somewhere between naval patrols, punitive legislative action, economic aid, enforcing respect for the territorial integrity and rights of a nation unable to do so and political and administrative strengthening of one of the most impoverished and dangerous nations on earth. This is easier said than done as the United Nations would have to display consensus and unity in action to a degree higher than seen lately. Till then there is no option but to continue with naval patrols over vast stretches of ocean.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Living In Trunks And Trucks

               “Oh, Shikha’s been transferred to Vizag a month ago”, replied my teenage daughter in response to my query on the whereabouts of her friend. It didn’t matter to her that it was her friend’s father who had been transferred, and that his daughter was merely accompanying him. As far as she was concerned, Shikha had been transferred and that was that, while she returned to the animated conversation with her mobile phone, clearly demonstrating an early capability of multitasking.
               To a dyed in wool fauji like me who has spent a lifetime in and around the service, as a child transfers offered great excitement – something to brag about to the boy who was always first in class and who knew just about everything that existed in the universe of small boys. Then there was the excitement of watching a house being slowly dismantled and put away into black boxes, farewell parties with plenty of attention lavished on me, and finally, the pinnacle of fun, the train journey.
               I recall the very first posting, when as a four year old, I accompanied my parents from Balasore to Delhi. In my four year old mind, the words ‘posting’ and ‘Delhi’ were synonymous and I assumed that all postings were to Delhi, and Delhi was just another name for posting. On that last day, as usual I hopped into the jeep onto my usual perch and was a little puzzled when someone asked me to sit at the back while a few more than the usual people accompanied us. In the early sixties, Balasore was a sleepy little town and the departure of the army’s station commander was a major event, for the entire population of the town along with their cousins appeared to have turned out, and there were crowds lining the road all the way from the house to the station. Of course I had no idea how the luggage and our dog reached Delhi.
               A few years later, we were ready for another transfer, this time to Pune, or Poona, as it was called then. Once again the excitement mounted, though this time it originated from the fact that I would be leaving that horrid school, where I had found myself to be the focused object of scolding by teachers and bullying by other boys. Besides, this time I was determined to be part of the action during the packing process, and demanded my share of responsibilities. My older siblings instead sent me packing, with “Buzz off” and “Go do your homework” being some of their more polite remarks.
               Eventually, to get me out of the way, I was given an old trunk and told to pack my toys and books. I went about it in due earnest and having carefully put away all my worldly treasures, I labeled it TOYS with my name scrawled on a page torn from a school-book that I hoped I would no longer need. For good measure, I added my class, name of the school and age. Lest someone hadn’t got the point, I added “Handle With Care” and “This Side Up”. Having duly considered the possible threat posed to the household by the presence of my air-gun pellets inside the trunk, I further added “Explosives”. With that, I was ready to move.
               In those days, for long journeys, officers usually hired special railway wagons called EVKs to transport their household effects. I stood in open-mouthed fascination in the railway yard as I watched our boxes being loaded into the wagon and expertly tied into place behind a net of ropes. I didn’t quite understand why the car was also driven in, till the doors of the wagon closed and my father explained that it was also being transported to Pune by train. The older siblings didn’t deem it fit to explain why we couldn’t just drive down to Pune.
               However the biggest surprise of the transfer was yet to come and I was secretly glad that both my older brother and sister would be coming separately. This time we travelled not by train, but by air. It was immensely exciting as we boarded the Caravelle and I accompanied the stewardess to the cockpit for a visit. In those days there were no direct flights from Delhi to Poona and one had to change at Bombay into a four-engine prop driven Viscount for the shorter leg of the journey. Those two flights remained my first ever air journey for many years, till I joined service and hesitantly took my next flight.
               Having donned the uniform, transfers soon became a by-word and the process began to fall into a routine. However as I had probably slept through or skipped the class on transfer allowances and procedures, I remained blissfully unaware of the nuances of baggage allowance, railway warrants and other such mysteries till I learned the hard way. Like all young officers, for many years my most important piece of luggage remained my steed, my trusty bike, and I spared absolutely no effort to ensure that it was properly packed, so that it received not one scratch during the various journeys between stations. My uniforms and personal effects packed into suitcases were a different matter and I usually ended up paying extra as my warrant and ticket was always missing that one crucial entry that entitled me to carry my luggage at the government’s expense.
               With time the dawn of wisdom began to break over me as my wife and I gradually began to put our own nest together, and we learned to carefully preserve the cartons of the items that we so painstakingly collected. The mixer, the toaster, the crystal animal farm that adorned our drawing room, all had their original cartons, which were indispensible when it was time to pack again for the next move.
               When I was younger, I found myself moving every eighteen months. The exercise of transfer began a couple of months in advance of D-day, usually with a muster of locks and keys. Locks were oiled and matched with keys, invariably there were locks that remained locked forever, that were inevitably consigned to the dustbin as neither of us had the patience to find a locksmith. Not long ago, while shopping at the market in Vasco, Goa, the shopkeeper asked me if I was under transfer. When I looked up surprised and asked him how he knew, he replied with a smile that since I was buying a number of identical locks, I was obviously moving, as this was standard practice before a transfer.
               Next came box inspection. Boxes and trunks would be aired in bright sunlight and the resident roaches and other wildlife evicted. It helped to have a fully loaded can of potent insect spray at hand with the memsahib at a safe distance, when opening boxes, as the resident insect population was likely to get agitated at the untimely disturbance. It was also quite normal to discover some long lost teapot or that missing china plate when boxes were reopened towards the end of a tenure. Boxes laid out open in the sun were another giveaway of an impending transfer. So much for confidentiality of transfers.
               Boxes and trunks would then be given a fresh coat of paint, usually black, but any available color would do. At one stage, I had a virtual palette of colors as among the blacks there were a few boxes in ship-side grey, pale-cream yellow, olive green, metallic silver trunks and even oxide brown depending on where I had been posted when the box was acquired. Stencils would be cut with the latest rank and destination duly dabbed on with white paint.
               Boxes would be assigned duties to the drawing room, the dining room, kitchen and so on depending on their capabilities in the same manner as assigning guard duties to troops. Experience is a great teacher and I learned that it were best if one immediately replaced the empty cartons into the boxes after unpacking, so that before the next transfer, the items could go back into the same box. My skill at jigsaw puzzles improved as I juggled cartons into various boxes in different combinations. By then I was a seasoned packer capable of offering my services to any logistics company.
               Invariably, after each tenure the number of boxes fell short and one had to acquire a few more, which meant it was time to go shopping for boxes and trunks. Long before packers and movers introduced the delights of foldable cardboard cartons to the nomadic fauji population, we had discovered the virtues of empty cartons of 555 cigarettes for packing miscellaneous items. Those sturdy cartons, having discharged their consignments found their way to households on the brink of a move. One had to reserve these indispensible cartons with the canteen manager well in advance, and keep the canteen officer in good humour till he handed over those precious items. Such was the demand, that I found myself receiving requests from army and air force coursemates posted as far afield as Siliguri, for a half dozen of those versatile containers, to be sent through someone moving in that direction. At one stage I even mulled setting up a black market of cartons, much like the character Milo Minderbinder, in the book Catch 22, wherein I imagined myself supplying cartons even to the Pakis using PAF planes that had my initials emblazoned on their tails. While Milo in the book had a few generals on his payrolls, I on the other hand, would have been content to have a couple of nasty Commanders working under me.
               There were boxes that had been with us so long that they were practically family, some even had names – there was ‘Big Russian’, a box that had once contained spares from that country, while one that had accompanied my better half as a new bride was simply named ‘Square Ambala’, and a longish trunk that had never been painted became ‘Long John Silver’. Quite easily the box with a mind of its own was one simply named ‘Idiot Box’. This was a large and sturdy wooden box that had seen service on both fronts and had accompanied its previous owner to high altitude areas as well. One look at the box would have been enough to convince anyone of the aptness of its name. It was probably built by a carpenter with more than his share of ‘desi’ inside him. The wood used was of varying thicknesses and types much like a street dog of doubtful ancestry. It’s handles were improperly fitted which made it difficult for loaders to heft. Its lid would not close completely and its two latches were both different. The latches had a tendency to fly apart, as happened when it was being loaded into a truck. Fortunately the quick thinking truck driver nailed it shut. It had been passed on to us by a friend of my father-in-law, a senior army officer, before our first transfer. He gave it to us feeling sorry for my better half, who was his daughter’s age, as he sadly asked, “Who asked you to get married into the Navy, when there are so many fine boys in the army?”
               There were boxes of all types, shapes and sizes. Those who had access to wood and carpenters proudly got a box made for the fridge. This was no ordinary box. In fact, as it guaranteed the safety and security of the family’s bread and butter, a great deal of technical thought and design effort was devoted to it. The wood and ply would be personally chosen by the owner, who would also approve the dimensions, keeping in mind not only the outer dimensions of the fridge carton, but also those of the next fridge, the memsahib had set her sights on. Then there was a box to transport that pride and joy of all middle class families, the television. However opinions were divided into two camps – those who sent their TV along with the rest of the luggage by road, and, those who preferred to personally carry their precious cargo by car or train. The pros and cons of both methods were the topic of fiery debates in parties, particularly after a couple of drinks, with both sides including the ladies ready to do battle on a matter of principle.
               Closer to D Day, a search would be conducted for a suitable transporter. During the transfer season in March - May every year, one would be deluged by flyers, calendars, stickers, posters, business cards and personal house visits of reps of transport companies. Quotations would be obtained, reps interviewed, telephone numbers verified and references checked. One had to be careful as nearly everyone had a horror story to relate of missing luggage, of trucks stalled in the middle of nowhere or other damage with the truck agency untraceable at that crucial time.
               In those days, truckers were a tough macho breed, with fierce upturned moustaches and intimidating stares. The rep usually a grey haired, grizzled old man, dressed in regulation kurta pyjama with a towel over his left shoulder, would saunter through the house inspecting your worldly possessions, much to the disapproval of the maid servant. He would then do a set of mental gymnastics to arrive at a price for transporting the luggage. The quoted price depended upon the amount of crystal in your drawing room, the size and make of your fridge, whether you had a color or black & white TV, and whether you had furniture. Thereafter would follow some fervent haggling over the price. If you negotiated too low, the veteran roadie would stubbornly demand that the amount be paid upfront. On the other hand, if you allowed him to have his way, you were in for a shocker from the CDA later. The price having been fixed, the trucker would conspiratorially call you aside and indicate the sign of a bottle with a huge gnarled fist and thumb. This was the signal when you were then expected to part with a bottle of rum to seal the deal.
               In the old days, when one didn’t have enough luggage to fill an entire truck, one looked for someone to share a truck with, not so much to save on costs, but because it was a given fact that the trucker would use the vacant space to load additional cargo. While moving from Jamnagar to Bombay, I had no option but to ask the trucker to give me half a truck space as there was no one to share with. He agreed to my request to load the other cargo first. When it arrived, I expected to see a truck with boxes of the other load piled in the forward portion of the truck, but I was in for a surprise as I was sharing a truck with a consignment of salt that occupied the entire cargo space to a depth of two or three feet. He cheerfully explained that my luggage would be loaded over the salt and that it would in fact cushion my things. As we were to leave by train the next day and there seemed no option, I agreed. The truck having been loaded, I crossed my toes as well as my fingers while the memsahib glowered crossly at me. Early the next morning, the phone rang. It was the helper I had sent with the truck, calling to say that the truck had stalled. I froze, with visions of my things lying scattered on some desolate stretch of road. When he explained that the truck hadn’t left Jamnagar at all and had actually not gone beyond the trucker’s office, I felt somewhat relieved but quickly got on my scooter to reach his premises. There I found all my worldly possessions stacked nearby, while workmen were busy transferring the salt to the next truck. Eventually, everything was safely loaded onto the new truck and made it to Bombay without further adventures. But that was one heart stopping moment.
               Packing in remote stations, was done by a combination of sahib, memsahib, maid and anyone else who could be drafted in, with yours truly being the chief packer. The trucking companies were far too masculine to do effeminate jobs like packing. That was for the wimps. Luckily, all those days of staring open mouthed at the packers in my parents’ home in Balasore were now beginning to pay off. I became something of an expert in winding hessian cloth around my things, having cut my teeth as a young officer on packing my beloved bike. I could wield the large needle called a sooa with jute string, like a sword. In the larger cities like Bombay, we had the benefit of the ‘bajrang dal’, an epithet given to a group of maids’ husbands who had been trained by an enterprising man to pack officers’ luggage. Since this gentleman usually wore a traditional outfit complete with Gandhi topi, the name of the group stuck. I believe he still operates in Mumbai.
               As one grew older and the number of pieces increased with a sofa set and other furniture added in the course of our nomadic life, the weight slowly began to shift to the other foot. It was the trucker’s turn to get intimidated under the confident, steely eyed gaze of the memsahib seated comfortably on the sofa while he shuffled around uncertainly. Needless to say, he wouldn’t dare to mention the word ‘rum’. In due course, the ‘trucking only’ companies began to give way to packers and movers and hessian cloth was replaced by corrugated cardboard sheet, bubble wrap and cling film. My favored weapon, the sooa has was rendered obsolete by ducting tape. Moreover, I don’t think anyone makes fridge crates anymore, reams of corrugated sheet and thermocol are just as good. Above all, the macho truckers’ reps with their earthy and big-hearted ways and names like Om Pal and Dharam Singh have given way to smooth faced, English speaking, tie clad youngsters with business cards that read names like Nitin and Sachin. 
However, the ethos and excitement of transfers remains the same.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Of Bandars and Bully Ants

Highlife In The Hutments - 3

This is a collection of short stories on life in the armed forces, collectively referred to as the ‘fauj’, and deals specifically with life in the fauji quarters. This story takes a look at the animal life that share our quarters.

Of Bandars and Bully Ants

            The Babe from Bandra and the Stunner from Santa Cruz squealed in unison, which made Cutie from Colaba drop her papers. When she bent down to pick them up she recoiled in horror and in a reflex action reached for the intercom. This was something the GM upstairs needed to know at once. “There are ants in the showroom Ma’am, big ones”, she managed to stammer out. The GM rolled her eyes upwards, and in as calm a voice as she could manage, advised the pride of Colaba to use a can of insect spray followed by a dose of room freshener. My better half related the latest crisis she had been compelled to deal with, amidst her negotiations with a demanding customer, during our evening walk. I listened silently, as one is expected to do when a superior officer speaks. Suddenly there flashed before my mind’s eye, a pulse generated no doubt by a long dormant neuron, a picture of a troop of bully ants marching determinedly towards my four year old toes, while I sat obligingly on the throne in an ancient bathroom of our house in far away Balasore. I stared at them transfixed as only a four year old could.
            As far as I could remember, there were always ants - red ants, white ants, black ants, blacker ants, ants as big as scorpions and scorpions as small as ants, that freely roamed each corner of every house that I can recall since childhood. They were there when the first British occupants entered those houses, while their descendants supervised the departure of the Brits to Blighty and their subsequent generations continue to live there, notwithstanding the annual efforts of the Station Health Organization. Insects of various shapes, sizes and colors, winged insects, creepies, crawlies and others have had a long association with fauji houses, many having actually accompanied the families on transfers throughout India. Thus we have had ants from Mumbai settling down in Delhi, roaches from Kochi hitting town in cosmopolitan Mumbai, Bangalore’s bully ants making their presence known in Gangtok and so on.
            It was not only insects but lizards, birds and animals of every description varying according to the place, that seemed to be attracted to those fauji houses and flats. Snakes in ground floor houses were a given, however in Goa I found myself peering at a snake through the window of our first floor bathroom, fortunately with a wire mesh in between. A friend even reported a snake on the fifth floor of their building when posted in Bombay, though I’m not sure how many pegs of rum had been consumed before the sighting, certainly several were downed immediately thereafter.
Wildlife was included free with the inventory of the house and indeed notes were exchanged between the new incumbents and the old occupants of a house, which went thus – “watch out for the snake that lives in the corner of the garden near the drain. Don’t leave the kitchen door open, otherwise the rats will enter and the snake behind them. Also watch out for a cat that lives nearby. It will enter through the window, if the milk is kept on the table. And yes, get the SHO to spray the house for roaches, particularly the bathroom drains …..”
The type of wildlife varied from place to place – in Delhi it was cheeky rhesus monkeys who used the clothesline as a swing and snarled daringly at the memsahib, but preferred to retreat a distance when the master of the house approached. In fact it peeved the missus no end that the bandars didn’t pay heed to her entreatments and even the swings of the mosquito rod held in her hands, but quickly moved off when I approached. No sense in raising that topic, however satisfying, during the evening walk, though.
But coming back, in Goa it was langurs, with snakes thrown in for free along with noisy mynahs, while in Kochi it was snakes, snails and flying cockroaches. In Mumbai, Delhi and other cities, one had to evict the pigeons and their extended families before one could move in. In Jamnagar, there was a veritable zoo, where jackals, deer and camels came calling every other day, along with more snakes and scorpions, while in Pune we were visited by a civet cat. Lizards were indeed part of the household and as my mother lived in dread of them and refused to enter a room unless the lizard was evicted dead or alive, I became an accomplished lizard hunter by the time I turned fifteen.
A friend who, on posting to Kolkata, was assigned a “pre-temporary” accommodation in Fort William, was startled one evening shortly after he had moved in, to find a spider nearly as big as his hand! When he related the episode of the gigantic spider, the next day in office, he learned that the room allotted to him was part of the stables dating back to the time of Col Robert Clive. Whether the spider also dated back to Clive will never be known, but he shifted out quickly, lest he next encounter the Colonel or one of his aides in one of the darker recesses of the dwelling.
Rats were another set of regular residents of our houses. Again there were a great variety of them – fearsome looking black rats that glared at you if you had the temerity to disturb them and smaller brown mice that were actually rather cute. The older the building, the bigger were the rodents. In Delhi, we lived in a ‘hostel’ on Maulana Azad Road, that had been built by my grandfather during the Second World War. The rats had obviously won their war for they seemed to have multiplied and grown bigger in size despite the rat-traps and the rat poison. Since that building had a false ceiling, one could hear them as they scampered around chasing each other. However in my experience the ultimate rats are the ones in Mumbai – I actually saw a tunnel made by rats through the floor of the ground floor flat that I was allotted on transfer from Goa. Rats that could dig their way through tiles?!
While visiting a cantonment near Guwahati, I saw evidence of a recent visit by elephants. My friend described the visit by the herd, who after sunning themselves on the lawn of his house, and having scooped up bushels of flowers as snacks, had merrily sauntered through carefully tended hedges, occasionally inserting a cheeky trunk through a carelessly left open window, to search for bananas and other fruit, all the while leaving large mounds of free gifts in their wake.
Bathrooms were a favorite place visited by snakes. In fact I once read a description of a bathroom written by an Englishman wherein he described the bathroom, or ‘gussalkhana’ as it was known then as “a room that had a tap at one end and a hole at the other. The hole was to let the water out and the snakes in.” We had one such gussalkhana in our house in Balasore, which had probably been built in the nineteenth century. I recall, as the afore-described three or four year old, being marched in by Mum for the gussal or whatever it was they called a bath back then, when I was just as unceremoniously yanked out and quickly perched atop a high chest of drawers while Mum deposited herself on a suitably elevated perch and proceeded to bring the house down.
A bit of shouting later, a posse of servants clattered past armed with mosquito rods and other weapons. A few more shouts ensued, till one of them emerged beaming with the offending reptile lying across his weapon of choice. The snake hunter would have held forth that evening, as the servants gathered for the post dinner hookah and beedi, in which he would have described the hunt in great detail. I know, because I often accompanied one of them to these discussions, where they rocked back and forth on their haunches while they discussed matters of importance.
Years later during a road trip, while staying the night at an Inspection Bungalow in Belgaum, my five year old daughter who had stepped into the toilet, let out a terrified shriek, for inside the toilet bowl was a fearsome looking black toad with an exotic orange strip running down its side. Once again the dreamer in me began to take over as I stared at it fascinated, however the shrieks of my progeny prevented me from any further wool gathering. Fortunately modern technology came to my rescue and I was able to simply flush it down.