The good folks over at 94.3 Radio One recently had me over as part of their #jobswitch and it was a pleasure being there.
RJ Annie, who hosts Mumbai on Demand, was an absolute pleasure to work with and I could tell right from our first call, where she was excited about being on the water –
…I can’t swim, so I will definitely need a jacket!! – RJ Annie, before we’d even met.
For her jobswitch, she had to hit the water. I naturally wanted her to have a good time, so we took her out to Mandwa. The old training ground, and met up with Prafful at his watersports center on the other side of the Mumbai channel.
I would say the only thing that eclipsed the beauty of the day, was how pumped Annie was on becoming a kayaker. I’d drawn up a list of things she needed to do –
Load the kayak
Navigate to the beach
Hit the water – Hard
Load the kayak
Enjoy the beach
Share her day
She handled everything from putting on a skirt to falling into the water on a rogue wave, like a PRO. Big shoutout to her! <3
You can watch her side of the story here –
Here’s a lovely shot of her in action.
I was down in the offices to do my bit and it came out quite well. Do listen in here. There were four segments across a one hour show. (Music not included 😉 )
I leave Nitin with an unopened box and tell him to stitch things up while I get my gear ready. When I return I find the kayak trolley assembled, but missing the strap to tie a kayak atop it. He runs to get some rope. We never run short of rope. We have a car full of equipment. And everything has been over used. Including patience. If I looked closely, I could put someone on mars with what we have packed in our car. Make Elon Musk’s day. We fasten the kayak to the trolley, and I set down the winding path from MTDC’s lovely cottages down to the beach at Harihareshwar. 100 metres in, the road ends in stairs. 19 feet long, and a fibre hull, is not going down stairs on a trolley.
Nitin and I carry it down. Past the stairs. Through the thorny bush. The pebbles turn to white shells. Each intent on cutting through. Shells turn to rock outcrop. And through it is a small sandy square. 3 metres wide. Launch pad.
I adjust the paddles. Check my watch. Time is always against us. Tide in, Tide out. Winds building up. Sun setting. Sun holding that full frontal position. Lift the skirt. Butt in the kayak. Leg over. Leg in. Two sharp paddle strokes. Turn to wave bye. Two sharp paddle strokes. Cover the mouth of the kayak with my skirt. Two sharp paddlestrokes. Release rudder line. Press hard on the left pedal. Paddle Hard.
You find yourself at a calm beach. You check your course. You scare the gulls with some sharp paddle strokes.
You find yourself at a turbulent beach. You brave the white breakers. You get tossed. A rude awakening in the morning. Water in the kayak if your skirt isn’t on. You tumble out. If the waves aren’t doing it for you, you drag your kayak to shore. Upturn. Check three compartments. Sponge it out. Start again. You get hit again, but you break through. Secure everything. Cap, glasses, cameras, phones, water bottles, food. If it’s not in a bag tied down or in a hatch locked away, you might as well have thrown it in yourself.
You find yourself at a creek. The wind blows, and the tide takes you in directions you haven’t mapped out for the day. You’re 4 kms off your course. You’re veering close to the breakers at the mouth. There is a buoy that probably means something you don’t want to know. There are small eddies set up you can’t navigate past. You recalibrate. You can probably sit there and google it, if everything stands still. But it doesn’t. The only law out here is Murphy’s.
You find yourself at a rocky face. You take in the sheer immensity of it. In Gujarat you wouldn’t find one. In Maharashtra you can’t miss them. Big majestic hills. Sheer face. Brown. Black. There is white breaking foam. And waves are building up on starboard. You surf your way through. You cut through. You recalibrate. Sun to the right, sun to the left. Point right out at sea. You escape, you press hard on the left pedal.
You cross a rocky face protruding at sea. Only you don’t know. Your route says straight. Only the mainland opens out to your left for miles. You have 7 miles to the next knuckle, and you’re suddenly 4 kms off of shore to your left. The wind trumpets your arrival and picks up the beat. Big swells start forming behind you. As one picks you up from behind the one in front hasn’t swept through the 19 feet of white kayak you’re in. Your nose is in the drink and you think you’re coming to a nosedive. A grinding halt. But your speedometer says you’re top speeding. Your downwind has had a look at your due-south course, but the on-shore waves are from WNW. Another day of choosing the lesser of two evils. You’re doing a great speed. But where was your initial bearing. Atleast you’re not bored.
You hit a sandbar. Sure they’re lovely islands of sand sitting less than a meter under the sea. This one stretches for miles into Harihareshwar. And its turning. A fishing vessels slows down to see the fun. 4 Kms back, Nitin has climbed up the rock, through the mine field of shells, past the thorny bush, up the stairs, and is watching from the MTDC canteen. The kindly old man who’s serves us food for 2 days has his hand over his open mouth. ‘He knows there are waves there? He’s going to be thrown in.’
I watch the breakers. Paddle left. Paddle right. I don’t slow down. I’ll need the momentum if I need to get out. I watch a wave 10 meters ahead. Three metres to it’s right is another one. Closer still in a circular arc white tips herald another. You’re living life a meter at a time. I take 500 strokes to a km . A stroke is 2 metres. My kayak is 5.5. I need 3 strokes to take me past a point. And a wave is fairly long. I dart right into the thick of it. Past the wave to the right. Bank hard on the rudder. Take it out to sea. Take one breaker head on. Bank left. A rogue wave takes me on the side. My spray skirt takes a sip of the turbulent sea. I press hard on the right paddle, and take another breaker at 30 degrees. Once I get the tip over, I slow down over the side. One more wave but it’s going to come from behind. I need to get between two consecutive waves. I can’t slow, and I have to time this. As it starts to form, I approach at full speed. It starts to rise and I slip over. It forms a meter to my left. Breaking white surf. The next one starts forming 2 meters to the right. I’m through.
I’ve passed through it. If I knew my audience was to my right now, I would have bowed. I take a second, and I recalibrate. There are no roads out here. Because you’re making them every minute.
I think you can spot kindness in the eyes. It’s like a dam waiting to break. And shower you with the niceness of being. I’ve been spotting it everyday in Gujarat. Let me tell you how it’s been.
We landed in Gujarat to the dusty streets of Dwarka. Past the twilight hour, we arrive in a city where the roads have taken a leave of absence and cows have filled in for them. The owner of the hotel is perplexed by the big blue tarpaulin on top of my car, but he does well to hide it. His immediate concern is giving us our rooms, which aren’t ready. He gives us a room to rest in while the other is being cleaned. After we’ve removed the cycle and tied it to a flimsy post, a GoIbibo ad for the hotel, and brought out the luggage, we look to address our immediate fear. Cash. Ashwin, the hotel owner, takes it upon himself. He says come with me. The next minute, I’m on the back of his scooter going through winding streets, dodging bowines and pan-chewers. He drives me to 3 ATMs before the fourth one has a standing line outside. He deposits me there, gives me both his phone numbers and tells me to call him when I’m done. On the ride back, I get the full layout of Dwarka, and also how there is Pomfret fished at Okha, but it all goes to export.
Down at the ghat the next day, the expedition stands on the brink. Cops have stopped me from entering the water, saying I don’t have the clearance. I might have to drive to Gandhinagar. 500 kms back the way we came. That’s a mighty big thorn on a fairly sensitive foot. For 1, I can’t drive back with the kayak atop. Also, I’ll now have to have everyone stay in Dwarka. Mr. Bambhania is the President of the Scuba Diving Club in Dwarka. He steps in and says – ‘What is your worry?’ I snap, ‘I can’t travel with my kayak, and I don’t know where to keep it either.’ 20 minutes later, the kayak is safely tucked away in his garden. We’ve put the tarp over it and he says – ‘You go do what you have to do first, this is safe here.’ True to his word, I could run around Dwarka, Okha, Khambaliya without a care about my precious cargo. At the launch, not only did Mr. Bambhania come out to see us off, he brought his two brothers, cyclists, and a small launch vessel. It braved the mouth of the Gomti with me, and when we crossed his dive site, he even had me board his boat and offered me a Dwarkadish welcome. A scarf and some mithai. In the middle of the sea, while someone helped haul out the buckets of water that two metre high waves had deposited in my kayak.
Rakesh Mishra is the head of GMB at Okha. I met him outside his home, on what I’d later realize, the day he had come back from travelling 600kms with his family. He was not perturbed by my barging into his home as much as amused by what I was proposing to do. He laughed and said – ‘Good yaar’ the way you’d encourage your close relatives in their pursuit of a girl they love. (Been there, Done that.) At his office the next day, he was the definition of nice. When he said – I love what you’re doing, you could actually sense that he did. We were supposed to be there 15 minutes but stayed for 2 hours. We chatted about kayaking and what I would need to launch. We chatted about Gujarat and how nice the people are. ‘Here, if you show up at a stranger’s house uninvited, they only let you go after lunch.’ He pushed me to rewrite the letter I’d typed up at the Marine Police Headquarters(Yes, on their computers!). Suddenly his office was my office, as I took over his computer to fill in various missing elements in my intimation letters. Barely had I hit print on a copy that he said – ‘What are you doing? You’ll need to submit these to everyone. Print atleast 6-7.’ He then proceeded to pull out a full fistful of fresh A4 paper for ‘miscellaneous needs’ and had his man take 5 copies of every document we should submit to all the authorities. ‘See, most of your time will be wasted doing these tasks. Xerox karwana, finding a stapler, writing a letter. Get it over with here only.’ His telepathic power were uncanny as we had spent 20 minutes looking for a xerox shop in far flung Okha, where one couldn’t find a restaurant let alone someone to change print settings on the overly-dark-photo-copier. Flush with everything we needed to wage war on the paper-filling mission we were on, we looked to leave when things came full circle. ‘What are you doing for lunch yaar?’ Before I can say we should have left your office 2 hours back, we are enroute to the GMB Guest house. A british-age Navy blue building overlooking the pristine blue waters of Okha. In the distance, a small island with an ancient lighthouse. Idyllic. The cook quickly accommodates 2 more people, and we relish the rest of the afternoon talking about Modi’s upcoming plans and how we should hang on for a little while to see some change. The change we are seeing in the attitude of the government workers here in Gujarat is very welcome to me. He sends us on our way to the Indian Coast Guard, because in his opinion, everything else is secondary, personal safety is the most important, and I should ensure that they know, because they will be the first responders.
Little did I know, they would also be my biggest backers.
Enter Indian Coast Guard Okha. The day before was Guru Nanak Jayanthi, and the receptionist at the gate said that Sisodia saab, the person who could take a call on the matter, was not in office. So we returned the next day. For my last expedition, the Coast Guard in Maharashtra had been very forth coming. This year, with mounting tensions on the border, things were a little sketchy. We set off with a letter from the Marine Police of Maharashtra, but not much else.
So on day 2, I knew that we had to get the go-ahead from the Indian Coast Guard at Okha. It was a make or break for the expedition. We were ushered in, and as Dad and I waited for the Second Officer, I dialed in a close friend Jeetesh Sisodia. ‘Siso, long-shot, but you wouldn’t happen to know the Sisodia who’s the SO at ICGS Okha would you?’ ‘Nopes. I know another person in Coast Guard, but not him.’ ‘No worries. It was a long shot.’
We head in, and explain ourselves. The SO is very courteous. He tells us about his inclination to sports, and how he’s trying to get his niece and nephew to go out and play. As to the matter in hand, he doesn’t commit. Instead, he tells us that the Commanding Officer might take an interest in meeting us as he has his own sailing club in Mandappam. The name sounds familiar, but when you’re pre-occupied with whether you can ever launch on your 3000km expedition, your brain is not connecting dots as readily as a well-fed 5 year old with spare time.
We wait in the CO’s waiting room, and are finally ushered in. The CO sees us coming in, get off his chair, and says – ‘Kaustubh?’ I’m stunned. Did the SO give out our names? Highly unlikely. ‘Hey come in, I saw your face and recognized you.’ Double whammy. ‘What’s your next expedition?!’ Way too many cannons firing.
Commandant Harish More is the CO of ICGS Okha. He’s had a love for the sea that is unparalleled. We share a common friend on the water in Jehan Driver. Down in Rameshwaram Jehan runs Quest Adventures. A club given to sailing, wind surfing, kayaking and most importantly kite-surfing. In what is a real story of vastly shrinking worlds, I’d met Commandant’s More’s wife in a chance occurrence in the Himalayas on a 12,000ft trek. While I tell him this, he shows dad a photo of me finishing last years expedition on his phone. From being in unknown territory, we are suddenly finding a warm welcome at the Indian Coast Guard headquarters. The commandant is asking me how I plan on staying safe, and I’m telling him about how fast I plan on doing this. He’s as excited as me that someone is attempting it. When Sandy Robson has crossed India, he had been a guiding hand in her route from Kerala to Kolkatta. Before I know it, I’m sending him my expedition deck and he’s telling me how he will help us stay in ICGS quarters wherever possible. To help ease the load. Now 20 days into the expedition and having been a guest at multiple properties around Gujarat, this has done exactly that. Apart from the monetary aspect of it, to not have to search for cheap, clean accommodation on a daily basis is a true blessing. It cuts an hour of running around with a car, kayak, and a cycle in unknown cities, with a sketchy internet.
But most importantly, Harish More adds a serious sense of safety to the whole expedition. He instructs me gently on what to do when in distress. He makes me commit things to memory, and assures me that they can spot my vessel from afar, so I shouldn’t be worried at any time. As this washes over dad, he accepts my intimation letter, and tells me that he will inform the ICGS stations along the route, and that I shouldn’t have any problems. The signed intimation letter comes in handy at Veraval, where an eager police inspector is told to take time-off after the Fishersies head sees the document. At another spot, the local police call the nearest coast guard control room to enquire if they know of any such expedition. The affirmative answer sees us out the door faster than developers out of a marketing think-thank meeting.
In truly heart warming fashion, he promises to come flag me off when I finally leave. On the basis of the letter, we get the rest of the documentation done, and 3 days after we were asked to halt our progress, Harish More, in his crisp white Indian Coast Guard uniform flags me off from the banks of the Gomti river.
Gujarat has been kind.
A million thanks to everyone in this post and everyone who moved things in the background to make it possible.
There’s a line from the F1-racing movie Rush, where the protagonist*, James Hunt says – ‘I’ve always been one for showing up on the day(unprepared) and playing chicken with everyone else.’ It does seem to have an appeal to it. And people who know me might nod their heads silently knowing that I’ve been known to shoot and ask questions later. But expeditions are different. Expeditions are about planning, and accounting for the unaccountable. What are you going to do when a rogue wave hits you? What happens when your phone dies? What do you eat on a beach you’re stranded on?
Everyday a dry bag goes into my kayak with dry clothes secure in cling wrap, food supplies, water, a swiss army knife, ID, an ATM card(only useless thing in this list at the moment), some spare cash and my spectacles. I’ve always got an excess supply of water, bailers for water coming onboard, sponges, and everything is secured on / in the kayak at cast off. Everyday that dry bag leaves the kayak unused is a great day.
Leaving Bombay Shanj mapped out places we would halt / sync up. Safe to say that 50% of the time we haven’t found the spot we set out of find. It’s got a Columbus feel to it, complete with locals who don’t know what to make of it all.
Our good friends at Meraki have been trying to get to us for the last 2 weeks and with our constantly changing timelines, we are having a tough time coordinating where they can meet us 2 days from now let alone 1 week ahead.
The changing landscape brings different weather patterns and no day’s paddling is the same. Winds pick up or change directions and the water gets choppier as we progress down south. It’s made it difficult to estimate when we complete a leg. Despite it all, we aren’t lagging behind too much.
Landing in Rajpara the other day was quite a scene. I’d navigated some very dubious waters. A fisherman’s boat turned back around and came out to check on my small craft. I unkowningly got caught in a eddy and everything was choppy around me. As I jostled with the waves, the fishing boat came out and asked me if I needed a tug. I declined the kind offer but not before noting that I was in some deep water. After they pointed me in the right direction, I got back on my charted course (To my relief I’d plotted the exact course that they put me on). And I entered Rajpara still having clocked my best time. We’d marked a point called Bajrag Tea House. And as I stood outside it scanning the shore for a golden car with a girl on a cycle to go with, I realized I’d beaten them to it. On land people started pouring in and following my progress. I went left, and they went left. I took a right and the kids started running the other way. I called ahead and found that the team was 10 kms off. That’s another 30 minutes and I couldn’t just stand here when I had such a warm welcome party on land waiting. So I skirted past the fishing boats, waved at a bunch of people, and popped my skirt. Effortless landing and I pulled up my kayak onto land. I was hit by a large crowd of small people. Kids flocked to the kayak. Again and giving credit to the people no one tried to touch it or sit on it or do anything remotely malicious. The elders soon appeared in drones, and I was hit with a barrage of questions. Where is the motor? What do you eat? What, Dwarka? Like Krishna’s Dwarka?
The people continue to be nice, and I was offered water (Which I declined. An incident with the water and my stomach at Navadra had convinced me off of it) but I accepted Bajrag’s tea. I mean, it’s a Google Landmark. A very nice gentleman took me to it, and sat me on a wooden bench which I presume is a bed, and I was given a saucer full of tea. Nobody bothers with cups this side, and a steaming saucer later, I pleaded a little cold in the tea house. Part true, part excuse to check on my kayak, I returned to find the stern two feet in the air attached to the village drunk. I was quick off my heels and ran down to ask him to drop it. Which he promptly did. He flapped his arms around and said something which I registered as – I want to take it out into the water and turn it upside down. I remarked how preposterous the idea sounded to which he flapped his arms and repeated said lines. Things were starting to boil over when he came over to touch something else, something I didn’t feel particularly comfortable with and he backed off. The third time he came around to the kayak, I got between him and the kayak. We had a bit of a stand off and we were seconds away from a brawl when an elderly man in white came running down and whacked him repeatedly on his head till he slunk back. A couple of other drunks followed suit and came down to see the vessel, but now that a precedent had been set, nothing much ensued.
The kids foamed about my watch or my phone though both of which aren’t something to write home about, but given the packaging of the product and it’s coming right out of the sea, they became things to talk about. I underplayed my watch’s price and even at it’s modest rate of INR 5,000 it’s stories ran through town.
People came and went, and by the time I saw the car on the outskirts of the town, I was rested, hydrated and had stretched enough to call it a day. The village was a departure from what you’d call a tropical fishing paradise the way that an ulcer is a departure from a warm fuzzy feeling. Having arrived at the banks, Nitin and I carried the kayak through a road littered with pigs and their natural habitat. The air was rank with dead / dying / decayed fish and we wanted to put as many miles between us as possible. In reflection, it explains why Shanjali chose a Vegetarian Gujarat Thali on our return to Diu.
But the 45 minutes of waiting, explains the chasm between our land and sea journeys. Often it is the other way around, and being a girl with a fancy bike in these areas can’t be overtly pleasant. One would choose an ulcer in my opinion.
Which brings us back to plotting. Not the Brutus and Mark Anthony kind, but the charting of our routes. Everyday, after the rest / documentation and dinner is done, we pull out our laptops / phones / internet source of the day(Docomo is a no-no here) and we plot the next day’s route. We figure how far it is by water, and sync it to my watch. A couple of backup beaches are plotted out and we painstakingly comb Google maps, Suunto’s maps and Navionics to find ourselves rocks, waves, islands and beaches. A beach in Gujarat doesn’t necessarily mean sand. In fact, in our experience, 90% of them are lined with rocks and to find an escape route / entry point often comes down to being on the ground. Plotting, thus, is not a whispered word in a ear like it was in Cassius’ time. Though an Assistant Commandant at Pipavav played his part and his words of –‘I would stay 2.5 Kms out because there are a lot of eddies’ brought his parting words with Brutus back –
“I am glad that my weak words
Have struck but thus much show of fire from Brutus.” –Cassisus to Brutus. Act I. Scene II. Julius Caesar.
Eddy. Back in the day, he was that Tekken character who with his Brazilian martial arts and colourful pants was never going to amount to much, and your best friend would chose him for his roundabout kicks. Dial it forward to today, and Eddy means a circular flow of water often caused by an obstruction such as rocks in the middle of the sea.
Now why would anyone put a rock in the middle of the sea. This is ridiculous and absurd and in Kayaking terms it’s called – that-spot-with-the-breaking-waves. What it does, in case you’re caught in one like I was yesterday is turn a fearsome 19 foot long white fibre kayak that’s on top speed into a rubber duck in a turbulent washing machine.
I’m kayaking from Dwarka to Kanyakumari and the process has seen us kayak down the beautiful blue / green west coast of Gujarat down to the tip at Diu. We are now into Day 2 on the East Coast of Gujarat, and it is a doozy. With the Gulf of Khambhat acting as a real contender for spoilsport of the year, the water here is literally sucked into that narrow stretch of land locked sea. Imagine a sponge, if you will, that’s thrown into a quiet unsuspecting lake, but just by the edge so a fraction of a portion of it’s tip hits the water. Now imagine the sponge is twice the size of the lake and it’s not a sponge but a vacuum cleaner for water, and as the water starts funneling towards said sponge / vacuum, you will start to get an idea about my affinity for sponges and it’s irrelevance to this story in general. Also, you might tangentially arrive at how the Gulf of Khambhat is pulling me towards it.
Now, on an average day, you’d say – Hey Kaustubh, isn’t that a good thing. And on an average day, I’d say – did you forget about Eddy and his vicious kicks in paragraph 1?
So, here we stand. In some pretty murky water. I mean, dark brown, can’t see my paddle in the water, murky. And there are some rocks underneath. And the wind is blowing against me. Oh, sorry, forgot about the wind. It’s what they say, the lesser of two evils. But at 4-7 Knots it’s building up some nice head on waves. And the bow of my kayak is like the sensex on receiving the demonetization news, it doesn’t know whether to climb or come crashing down. Only there are rocks. And I’m still being pushed into the Gulf.
I have archery in the morning. Yes, the bow and arrow kind. Someone asked me why I took up this sport? I told them it’s great for focus. Two hours of standing, pulling a bow & resting.
It’s only half the truth. I’m grappling at poetic answers & my mind plays tricks with me and gives me one. The full truth is the wait. The wait is everything. That interminable pause between the conception of an idea and it’s execution.
How do you fill the hours between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on a slow Friday. The minutes before your food is delivered from your favourite restaurant when it’s all you’re craving. From kneeling at the starters block and the final countdown in a 100m dash.
In that moment, every thought you should and shouldn’t have goes flitting through your mind. What you could and did do fight it out in a battle that plays on repeat. Should I have written to the tourism boards directly instead of waiting on an introduction, should I have bought a sail as backup months in advance, have I got the right glares, or were the red ones better.
I’ve crawled into bed 2 hours ago. I have archery in the morning, but my brain won’t let me slip away. I had a cold in the morning and fever the week before. I need this nights rest. And there it is again. ‘Did you send the email out? In an hour it will be thursday! No one reads emails at the end of a weekend!’ And a flood of thoughts beat down on the weak dam of sleep. But it’s not the mind.
The night before the JEE I couldn’t sleep. Before every major football match. In thailand, before the Sea Kayaking Asians, I slept 5 hours. Before launching off for Goa on a kayak I slept 3 hours. I want it to be tomorrow, and i want to know I’ve done it.
It’s not nerves or fear. I can’t rationalize it. I can’t will myself to sleep.You surf channels, I binge youtube. I tear down FB with my afterhours wit. I’m waiting for it to happen. But it doesn’t. It’s not tomorrow. It’s today & I’m stuck in the mediocrity of it.
But don’t worry. The sleep will come. And tomorrow will too. And with it, you’ll face your big challenge. And you’ll win.
It is 9p.m. and I’m in a run-down corridor. In a crisp white adidas jacket and shorts, I’m literally rubbing shoulders with a rather rough crowd. Frayed shirts, if any, and a lungi or dust coated trousers. A jumble of sweaty limbs and hard worked faces. There is one light along this 10 metre alley way that you wouldn’t notice if not for the queue that emanates from it.
As the feet shuffle along slowly, pressed between a second line on my left and the derelict wall on my right, the person in front of me takes out a phone. He’s dialling ‘bibi’. I discern – ‘Rum. Quarter’. He puts the phone back in his pocket. He’s smiling.
I am standing in a line at an alcohol shop in Kerala. The few that are.
Kerala is a drinking state. Always has been. Earlier today I walked past a small green walled hut that flashed the word Toddy over it’s front. Inside you wouldn’t have to look deep to find handfuls of people sitting at a table with a bottle of the unmistakable white liquid in bottles. People winding down after a long day.
The same is true in the line I’m in. Despite the dark and the squalor, cobwebs hanging over us, the mood is happy. Everyone is slowly but surely inching towards a good night. Down at the end of it, a thick grill divides me from the cashier. I ask for 3 Kingfisher Premium. He hollers over his shoulder. And holds up 1 finger. I ask him what else he has. Zingaro. Strong. 2 I gesticulate. He nods. And types it into a machine. A dot-matrix printer starts buzzing and he puts his hand forward. I give him a 500 that’s ready. As I wonder how much more I’ll need, he says 280. He’s joking.
In a cruel twist of fate, Kerala has the cheapest legal alcohol, and very few shops to sell it. It has been cracking down on the liquor shops systematically, and apart from 5 star hotels and KSTDC(Kerala State Tourism…) restaurants, you can’t hope to sit and drink into the night. Some say, it has some correlation with Kerala’s steadily rising illegal liquor market, but you didn’t hear it on this blog.
I head to the pickup spot, bill in hand. He offers me my three well-earned bottles. I don’t bother asking for a plastic bag, having not seen them on anyone who’s emerged from this corridor yet. And I snake my way past two lines. Outside Najeeb meets me to tell me he found a place we could have avoided this. I say, why would I have?
The next time you’re in Kerala, keep an eye out for them. By afternoon or early evening. A line of patiently waiting labourer-looking-hard-worked people with a twinkle in their eye. No jostling, no breaking formation. Just the patience of someone who knows better. And attached to the mouth of this happy line is a run-down establishment selling cheap legal liquor.
The other thing that might hit you, is the Bakeries. Lined all along the roads, you can’t miss them. Koolbar and Bakery. Offering fresh juice and warm cake. Macaroons and Halwa. Biscuits and pastries in all colours and shapes. ‘Farsan’ in big glass containers. Egg patties with half a boiled egg in them. And if you missed it, you won’t have to hold your breath too long, because another one will be with you 4 shops away.
Najeeb fills me in on this curious occurrence too. Kerala-ites love bakery food. You can’t visit someone’s house without it. In Ramanattukara, the small town I’m in, alone there are roughly a 100 bakeries. One in every 4 shops. With a population of 30,000 that’s 300 people to one bakery. And do they make any money? Najeeb puts it at 1 Lakh a day. Investment? 30 INR per sq. feet rent a month.
And he starts pointing them out to me. Slowing the two-wheeler as we pass them. He tells me that even in the remote villages, there are 4-5 bakeries. I ask him – ‘How many medical shops?’ He answers 1-2. But easy to imagine this being an inflated number. Maybe in Kerala cake saves lives.
As we stop at a petrol pump to fill up Najeeb opens the hood to reveal our catch. The attendant doesn’t flinch, or smile. He understands. And asks Najeeb – ‘How much?’ Here, in this quiet town in Kerala, with a literacy rate of 83%, it is easy to see, that everyone either bakes or gulps it down by the bucket.
We set out to Kayak to Elephanta this weekend. It’s a distance of 12.5 kms one way. By my reckoning, a simple 4 hour run.
Here’s how it panned out ->
Leg one. Gateway to Elephanta. 12.5 Kms. Completed in 2 hours.
Leg two. Elephanta to Gateway. 15.5 Kms. 5.5 hours for me. 6.5 hours for Shanjali and Manu.
We started out at a 7:30 am. Low tide was an hour back, and the tide was rising. We got out, and cut between the mainland and the island opposite the Navy Area. It was a quick simple run, and apart from fishing boats in the channel and running under the jetty at Jawahar Dweep, we had no real problem.
Halting at Gharapuri(It’s called that, popularly – Elephanta island), Shanj and I walked to the nearby village. We rationed some water and some biscuits. A breakfast of cornflakes would not have sufficed for what was to come, but we didn’t know that.
Launching at 10:30 from the island, we decided to round the ship at the jetty, currently offloading it’s crude cargo, and make a beeline for Gateway. We knew there was a high tide coming, but we grossly underestimated it. In the first hour, we had covered 2 kms! Going was slow, and I wasn’t keen on leaving them out of sight, despite mine being a faster kayak. Standing still, you’d drift back towards the island in minutes. Jokingly when they caught up, Shanj said – no more chit chat till we reach the ship.
It wasn’t till I reached the first anchored boat that I could gauge how fast the tide was. You could start a sentence at the bow of the boat, and finish it at the stern. I reckoned it would change once we got to the channel. It took us 2.5 hours to get to the ship alone. By the time I reached it, the wind had picked up. The ship loomed large over me, and a barge attached to it, threw me a line. I tied it down to my kayak, but between the drift, the wind and the waves, it was more of an effort than kayaking to stay still.
Panic kicked in, because I had reached here ahead of the others. Craning my neck, I could not spot them, and I didn’t want to turn in these choppy waters. I asked the crew onboard the ship if they could spot my fellow kayakers. They could not, and I started to worry. I kayaked ahead to look past the big ship, incase they had slipped under the bridge / jetty. Highly unlikely as the high tide was almost at it’s peak.
After tossing and turning and waiting for 30 minutes, I turned around. This was increasingly difficult, and the waves were pretty choppy by now. But luckily, barely had I turned it around, and I spotted them. A million thoughts of capsizes had gone through my mind.
I paddled out to them, and told them we are staying together. We regrouped at the barge, and I gladly accpeted Manu’s snickers. It was 1 o’clock and we were still atleast 7 kms out. I was hoping things would be clear now with the tide taking us out again. I was wrong.
The channel, commercial channel, with all the big ships, barges, fishing trawlers and police boats was choppy. As the waves rushed in from all sides, my rudder started jamming. I had to rely on corrective strokes to keep her into the waves. With a kayak as big of this, and getting hit on multiple sides, it was becoming difficult to keep her steady. I had more capsize moments here than on my Goa expedition. I would later learn, that my stern storage compartment and my day hatch had filled with water. So not only was the rudder gone, my butt was heavier than my front.
I had imagined stopping for Shanj and Manu every 5 minutes, but it quickly became imperative that I constantly paddle. Thanks to an internet outage the day before, my GPS couldn’t direct me to the right spot. The sun was out, and made it difficult to be sure of there Gateway was. Luckily, I guessed wrong. I directed everyone to a spot north of Gateway. In hindsight, this let the retreating tide guide us south to Gateway, saving us a big deal of trouble.
On the choppy water, I got into a familiar situation of not being able to spot the others. Shanj would tell me later that it was slow going, and their kayak really bobbed up and down in the big swells. But they kept paddling. It was a comfort to know that she had Manu as company and I’m super proud of how they held up.
By the time, I got to the end of the channel, the current had grown super strong. I would point my kayak to the front of a big container ship, and by the time I reached it, I slipped around the back. When I finally came to the Navy area, I considered slipped in between the island again, but the tide decided against it.
I finally slowed down my paddling 750 metres out of the gateway, under a false sense of security. I was brought back to my senses when a small dinghy ferrying three foreigners, presumably back from a sailing race, started waving to me. It drew parralel, and then before we knew it, we were both stuck.
We were now parrallel to the Gateway, me paddling furiously, and he with his engine on. And we were both standing still. Next to us, an achored boat smiled on. Finally the dinghy got past the boat, and found a patch to coast in. I followed pursuit, heaving a sigh of relief when the tide finally gave in. Once I was amidst the achored boats, things got better, and for the last 300 metres, it was smooth sailing.
But the day was not over. My mind had been on the two kayakers still out there. I brought the kayak up the ramp, ran to the car and reached my phone. I wanted to alert Manu to point north and directly for shore, letting the tide do the rest of the work, but he didn’t pick up. But the call went through, and that probably meant they hadn’t capsized yet.
I decided to be ready to get them, and swung my car around to secure it. Driving past the Taj, me left lens just popped out. Dehydration? Tired of my general existence? So here I am, two friends lost at sea, driving half blind in one of the most crowded saturday haunts of the city.
By the time, I get to the jetty, it’s 4:30. Still no sign of the guys. I imagined them to be 30 minutes behind me, but it was already 45. Rakesh Madiye helped me hoist the kayak atop the car. While loading I recognized how heavy it was, and found about 10 litres of sea water trapped inside.
I secured the kayak and dialled manu’s number again. He picked up this time, and told me they were right outside the harbour. I was greatly comforted. I could not spot them, and after 10 minutes when I called he said – I think we might need some help.
At this point, that familiar feeling of worry came swarming back. I could not spot them, and it had been more than 6 hours they were paddling, with a strong tide now taking them out to sea. I discussed this with my sailing friends, who were fresh out of a sailing race.
Rakesh Varadkar was the first to respond. Barely had I explained the situation that he understood the severity. His boat was achored close, and we hitched a ride to it. I called Manu to confirm his location. Just outside the harbour was still the reply, though he tried to give me a line to take getting out of Gateway. When we finally got there, they were no where to be found. Rakesh’s presence of mind saved the day here, and he asked for the phone. He enquired what was closest to them. Manu said a single sail boat. Most of the sail boats had returned to harbour, and while I scanned them, Rakesh looked out. And he spotted them. I couldn’t spot a soul to be honest. But he was right. Way off course, almost 3 kms out of harbour, I saw them valiantly paddling. We reached them and you could see it on their faces. Manu had almost given up, and Shanjali, though cheerful, looked tired. She later told me she always knew they’d make it back, but given the drift, I wasn’t so sure.
We tied the kayak up, after letting the water out. Then, as three tired souls, we were ferried back to shore. On land, Rakesh refused our offer for a beer citing that anyone would do it. I don’t know for sure about that, but I am a 100% sure that without his help, it would have been a Long Long day. (And that’s me euphemising)
As we dug into our lunch at 6:30 in the evening, we laughed about it, but we all knew that we’d just averted a minor disaster.
Comic Relief: I spoke to mom just before the food arrived at our rooftop lunch, and told her that I had just gotten off the water, and we had been beset by tides, strong waves and had kayaked for about 8 hours to cover just 27 kms. She heard it all and then said – Ok, now listen, I have made chicken Dilbahar and there are chapattis. You better come home and have it.
“Kaustubh is a firm believer that sport can be used for change.”
As the compere finishes his introduction, I leave my chair, and take the dias. The convocation hall at IIT Roorkee is filled with 500 students, packed in, after 3 days of exertion on the field.
There are a number of things one could tell these student and time is of the essence. So I give them the advice I think they can relate to – “Pain IS Good”.
But let’s dial it back a bit. How did I get here? I guess you can date this story as far back as you like but the immediate truth is not even a week old. A good friend, Vivek Pateshwari (who runs www.invitemyguest.in) had a request regarding a position for chief guest of IIT Roorkee’s sport festival, Sangram. He thought of me. I was flattered. This being an IIT(my alma-mater) I said yes without getting into the details. A couple of days later, flights were booked and arrangments for transit cabs done.
Where this story might find bedrock, however, is in my second year at IIT Delhi. My hostel had won the right to host the sports festival, The party that had won, was not the one I voted for(long story..) but all my friends were in the football team. Thanks to compere-ing the hosel day at the end of my first year, I was asked to ‘touch-up’ the sponsorship collateral. I built a story around each sport giving emphasis to the ‘grand’ football championship & taking the shine off the cricket games. (Yes, I was partial back then too.) Fast forward to the final date of the sports fest. The secretary of sports calls in a favour and someone tells me to run on over to the football ground. On the way over, they explain that I am to compere the event. Boom.
An Arjuna award winner is our chief guest. I’m shivering. That’s real gold. Someone who’s sweated & bled for sports in our country. In that moment, I cared for nothing but thee pride of our college and holding it’s own in the presence of a sporting great. I remember the introductions and vividly recollect taking the mike when someone fumbled the national anthem.
Back to the present, and here I am. Ready to address an audience that in all likelihood didn’t know me. But sitting here in the cushy chairs, or up on stage compere-ing there was a younger me. One day he will be on stage and thinking the same thoughts.
I eased them into my presence with a joke. I told them of their privilege, not at hearing me talk today, but of being in such august company as the sportsmen to their left. I spoke of the importance of their pain and why years from now they should never forget why they do what they do. Pain differentiates us, it is the reason we will go further, work harder & truly embrace the pleasure of victory.
As I take my seat, I know that for that future Kaustubh Khade, my making this trip was worth it.