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Kathiyawad. A people. Part 1.

Kathiyawad. A people. Part 1.

Time to read: 10 min

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.

Alang. The Graveyard.

Alang. The Graveyard.

Time to read: 4 min

There is that old question – “If you knew where you would meet your demise, would you knowingly go there?” For 30 years, ships have been, like dogs sensing their end, retreating to Alang for their last rites. Huge giants of the sea tread softly in on a high tide, and as the water retreats their death toll is rung.

It takes 3 months to tear apart a medium size container vessel. Says the guard, Prajapati. Two minutes back he was scampering down the slopes of his perch in Plot no. 231. Now we take photos with me against the dead ship. “My brother lives in Bombay. I used to live in Borivali.’ He tells me that once a ship is brought into land, the captain is relieved of his ship. Sold through bids to any one of the multitude of ship breakers, it’s now no more than a hunk of metal, wood and plastic. And not a scrap goes waste.

As we drive into Alang, 5 kms out, they start. Big open warehouses. Fenced & categorized. We see rows of TVs, refrigerators. Big safes that could house pearls to be thrown into oceans in HD quality. Big dusty yards turned orange by life-rafts of all sizes and states of disrepair. One lot has engines in that rustproof green. Cables, pulleys, ropes of varying thicknesses & make. I ask for life jackets & the businessman starts blowing into airplane yellow inflatables. I can buy a bath tub with the works and a jerry can to fill it with, if the plumbing store isn’t open yet. Furniture stores share a border with warehouses selling wood planks that share a border with waterproof doors. Buoys, anchors & winter down-jackets. An army of table fans catching the dusty wind of this dying town.

‘UP, Bihar, Orissa, Maharashtra, Bengal se bhi aate hain.’ (Workers come from all these states. Even West Bengal) says Ramprakash, the kindly, groggy attendant at Ship Breaking Plot 134. ‘Dekh lo, par photo mat lena.’ Acetylene torches. What once took years of work, parts from around the world, and withstood the battering of a million waves, taken apart by a mob of migrant workers in a brown city in Gujarat. A 15 storey monster done in by a 2 storey white oxygen cyclinder. Nobody makes ships to fall apart, but in Alang you’ll find a cure for that.

Workers brushing their teeth, brown bucket in hand* enroute the banks of the sea that feeds them. Workers have been dying in Alang for a while now. Prajapati casually remarks – ‘Petrol chamber mein girte hain, kabhi fire lag jaati hain.’

Alang’s beach runs 5 kms long, each plot shares a wall with another. Walls & gates meant to keep prying eyes and camera lenses out. Not a single access way to the beach save the squatting squares*. Fate is not without irony as the one thing they all share in common are the words boldly painted on the wall – ‘Safety First.’ To drive home the humour – ‘Clean Sosiyo, Green Sosiyo.’

I’ve now wriggled my way on to the beach. The first ship I see looks a wreck. A container vessel who’s stern literally fell out with the rest of the ship. Containers stand in the water while an open ship rotor sticks out over the brown murky waves. I move on. The next ship looks almost whole. Only the top of the bow has been removed. Prajapati has seen it all. He adds nothing to his explanation of – ‘Permeeshan nahi aya.’ (Permissions were revoked / not given) As I stare at the hunk of metal that was removed before the paperwork came down heavy on this gigantic paperweight, I see the name of the vessel. Friends. So here it lies, dying and friendless. As I chat with said guard, two local women start picking up after the departing tide; plastic gems scattered on this rocky beach. Prajapati shoos them off. He finishes the sentence with how his hometown is just 3 kms away. Nothing is black and white here. Just various shades of brown, each squabbling for a juicier pound of flesh.

As the workers start entering the plots, I smell fumes. The kinds my lungs would avoid if they could take a walk off of this beach.  Big chemical carriers, container ships, dredgers, drillers. 50% of the world’s ships due for demolition come to Alang. On a long enough timeline the chances of a ship ending up at Alang is higher than ships in the Suez Canal being attacked by Somali Pirates on a bad day. Definitely more than the chances of the workers seeing a ripe age of 60. Welcome to Alang,the dying graveyard.