The Incredible Box Kite: Chronicles of travels in Gopalpur-On-Sea

March 23, 2010

By Siddhartha Mitra, Sanhati

Chapter 1. In the beginning

“Bhago, bhago, usko leke bhago!” Trilochon urged me. (Run, run with it!)

I ran. The soft sand of the beach gave way under my feet. My right hand was tightly clutching the end of a string, the other end of which was attached to the box-kite.

But it was of no use. I already had been half-certain that the kite could not possibly take off. The box-kite half-heartedly soared a bit, then dipped and came back onto the ground.

“Waise nahin, mein dikhata hoon”, said Shankar, Trilochon’s nine year old son, who had just returned from school and had joined us. He took the string from my hand, and sprinted away past me. (No, no, that is not how you do it. Here, let me show you).

And then the impossible happened.

The box-kite took off, hesitated as if caught in two minds, and then went bouncing and soaring on top of a breeze.

Shankar’s eyes glistened with excitement. I myself could hardly contain my delight. Even Trilochon’s face had lit up with joy; his eyes were transfixed on the fast receding kite.

Do you know what a box-kite is? I did not till that day. It is very different from the flat paper kites we usually see in the skies over Indian cities. Imagine a hollow rectangular column, whose walls are made of thin paper, and the sides held up by sticks, serving as pillars which hold up the structure. And four strings attached to the sticks, combining to a single string just below the kite.

When I first saw it, I could not believe that this would actually fly. Trilochon had spent several hours in the morning constructing the kite from scratch. He had painstakingly chosen the right paper, the appropriate sticks, and the glue that would be good enough to hold the kite together. And after hours of meticulous hard work, the kite had taken shape.

And yet the kite did soar into the sky. There it was, flying high now, a mere spot against the azure noon sky, hopping and turning in slow motion as the breeze shifted. Far above, the birds of prey, their distant shrill shrieks as if in complaint, skipped and shuddered as they rode the wind in the lookout for any fish the fishermen might discard such on the beach. The tide had come in with the loaded boats, and the fishermen were unloading and sorting the bounty the sea had yielded in their nets.

I tested the end of the string that Shankar was holding. Even as he alternately gave some slack and then reeled in the thread, it was obvious the kite was pulling away quite hard.

“Isko kisise bandh dete hain”, Shankar remarked excitedly. “Phir baadmein aake dekhenge” (Let’s tie this to a something. We can come back later to check on it.)

“Thik hai,” I concurred. (OK).

Trilochon found a piece of wood sticking out from the ground nearby, and tied the end of the kite’s string to it. The breeze was still quite strong, and it did not appear likely that the kite would come down anytime soon.

Our adventure concluded, we wound our way back to the guest house from where I and Trilochon had started from an hour or so ago. Like in my three previous visits to Gopalpur, I was staying at the Ocean House, the guest house owned and operated by an elderly Englishman named Mr. Smith. Trilochon, a wiry man in his forties, was a local who was employed as a part-time help in the guest house.

“Who kitna der upara rahega?” I hesitatingly inquired off Trilochon. (How long do you think it will stay up for?). I still could not convince myself that the take-off was not a freak accident.

“Who rahega, babu, kafi der tak”, he bemusedly smiled at me. (Oh, it will be there for some time).

As we crossed the beach, we reached the gates of the guest house. As we walked past the gate, after washing the sand off our feet, we were gaily hailed by Kamdu, who had seen us come in. A woman from the fishing community, she doubled as a cook and as a maid to clean and maintain the guest rooms.

“Kaise tha, babu”, Kamdu, the woman who worked in the house as a cook and as a maid asked me. (How was it, Sir.)

“Bohut acha laga. Maine to socha hi nahin that woh upar jayega”, I replied. (I liked it very much. I had not imagined that it would actually take flight.)

“Aayein, aapke liye khana tayiar hain”, she happily replied, and I quickly forgot about the kite, as I soon was too engrossed in another of her fantastic meals. (Come, your meal is ready.)

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Chapter 2. Gopalpur

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This was the still the early nineties, and there were still not that many places yet to stay in Gopalpur. One of the few buildings that stood by the main beachfront, this house stood in a little isolated cluster of buildings on one end. Right next to it was the ruins of an abandoned building that was once a storehouse for shipping goods; on the other side there was a guest house often frequented by guests from TISCO. A modest but attractive two storied white house with blue windows, the top floor was the place where most of the guests were housed. This floor also had a patio, where I had spent countless drowsy hours in the hot afternoons watching the large fishing boats come and go, with their distinct yellow and blue and white sails melting and un-melting into the sea on which they floated in.

Gopalpur has among the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. This small fishing hamlet is around 17 km from the nearest city of Behrampur, which is on the train line that runs from Kolkata to Chennai. Both are part of the Ganjam district, one of the most fertile and yet among the most poverty stricken districts in Orissa. A few kilometres to the south of Gopalpur, overlooking the sea, there is a large military base and missile test firing range situated on the border with Andhra Pradesh. A murky backwater, having several shrimp fisheries, clearly marked the northern boundary. The main port of Gopalpur was located a few kilometers north of Gopalpur, where the local sand, rich in illemenite and monazite, is shipped to Australia for use in nuclear reactors. Two long jetty’s stretched deep into the sea so that it would be easy to offload the sand into the waiting boats.

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Photo: The main beach in Gopalpur [Click to enlarge]

The main local community, comprised of coastal fishermen who spoke Telegu, was sandwiched in the few kilometres that separated the city and the firing range, though some fishing villages were also scattered to the north of the backwater. A few farmers, who had betel and cashew plantations, and a small smattering of people who lived off the seasonal tourism, made for the remaining denizens.

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Photo: Remains of the godown [Click to enlarge]

The seemingly sleepy town had reached its heyday during the British times, when it was an important navy port for trade with Burma, and also a popular tourist destination. The Second World War brought an end to the trade, though it was then also considered a strategic naval port by the British navy. The decaying columns of an abandoned jetty that had been used by the British navy still show up during period of low tide, appearing like the spine of some giant sea monster that is headed for the deeps. After the war, with no trade flowing or military personnel present, the economy of Gopalpur declined, and tourism all but dried up. Like an enchanted castle that had fallen asleep when the princess pricked her thumb on a thimble, the town of Gopalpur had fallen asleep, lulled by the boats that occasionally drifted in and out, and by the few tourists, mainly from Behrampur, who wandered by during the major holidays.

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Chapter 3. Mr. Smith and the Ocean House

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It was this slumber that I had first stumbled upon one summer day in the late eighties. Those were the heyday of Ocean House, when Mr. Smith, the owner could still afford to pay the auto rickshaw touts some money to fetch the chance tourist. I still remember the kind face with which he greeted me when I first arrived. Though set deep in a sharp face with a prominent aquiline nose, the blue eyes could not conceal a merry twinkle as he saw me. Already beginning to stoop over with the seventy and more years, he had lifted his slender yet bony frame from the armchair to greet me as I had first opened the gate and stepped in the greeting area.

“And let people who know that this is the only guest house that also has a palm tree in front of it”, were his concluding remarks after ushering me in to sign the guest book.

Eventually, after talking to him during my many stays at the Ocean House, I had pieced together his story. As a member of the British navy, he had first come to Gopalpur with the British navy just before the war had ended. A lifelong sufferer from asthma, it was the first time he could breathe freely. The war was soon over, and the British left. But not Mr.Smith. Perhaps it was quietude, or perhaps the desire to find a new life in a new land. He never told me, I am not sure if he knew the answer himself. He and his wife settled here, along with their two children, a son and a daughter. His wife died a few years later, and after a while his son and daughter both left to stay in England. His daughter had visited him regularly and then intermittently, and now even had stopped writing.

But Mr. Smith had left that world behind when he had left the shores of his country.

He had come to stay.

Was it just his health?

Or was there something else in the place? The easy familiarity, the otherworldly nature of a land that has escaped the world as it changes around it? Or the simple lives of the local people and fishing community which charmed him?

I never could tell. But this was certain – he was one of the only few people who employed someone from the fishing community in his hotel. Most people of the fishing community in general lived separately from the locals, in distant hamlets, though some of them lived in the city itself, mostly in the slum area far from the beach. Many locals also lived in villages, especially those who had farms in the lush countryside, but more of them lived in the city. Yet, the Telegu speaking dark skinned fishing folks were somehow distinct from the locals, while the hotel and small business owners, who were from nearby cities, stood distinctly apart. Mr. Smith trusted them implicitly for all the work. And they had returned his trust. For over fifteen years, they had diligently cleaned the place, attended to his needs , did his shopping and cooking, and made sure that Ocean House left pleasant memories to visitors who chanced by.

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Chapter 4. Trilochan and Kamdu

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Trilochon’s face had not been wrinkled by countless hours in the sea, as he was not a fisherman. Yet his eyes seem to always have a keen yet distant look, as if he realized that like the fishermen, he had to struggle to make ends meet all through his life. He was slim yet well-built. One time he climbed to the top of a tall coconut tree barefoot and unaided to get the coconuts. It was so frightening I could hardly watch, but it was so fascinating that I could not turn away. Taciturn as ever, he had come down without incident and handed me the coconuts as if nothing had happened. A determined but meticulous person, he provided important help to keep the guest house running.

More than anyone else, it was Kamdu who did most of the work. A thickset woman whose dark sunburned skin spoke of many hours toiling in the sun, she was in her forties when I first met her. Both of her children were, as she put it, “fishmen”. Inevitably dressed in some gay colored sari, she would always be heavily bangled and bedecked with whatever jewelry she possessed, a riot of colour and show, as she energetically moved about the house.

I once asked Kamdu if she ever went go fishing.

“Aurat ko boat mein jaane nehin dete”, she told me. (They do not allow women to go on the boat).

“Kyun?” (Why)

“Ladki logo ko nahin leke jaate hain”, she replied. (They do not take women on the boat.)

Women play a vital role in transporting the catch once it reaches the shore. Apart from collecting firewood, they would also help in other peripheral activities, mostly related to cooking. Apparently there were superstitions involved in having women on board, and the deeply superstitious fishermen would not have any women accompanying them.

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Photo: Women carrying firewood [Click to enlarge]

It was a very demanding task that the fishermen were faced with in the open sea. Even pulling the boat loaded with the catch back into the land was no mean task. But their lives depended on setting out for the catch. Even during the summer and the monsoon, the sea would rage and roil, they would set out, often in long trips that lasted overnight for two days. It was a big risk, but there was little choice. With the little margins the fishermen make, a day they do not go fishing could be a day without food.

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Chapter 5. Out at sea with Shambhu

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I remember the time when Shambhu, Kamdu’s son, took me on a fishing trip. This was only possible after much persuasion, as he did not want to take the risk of taking me out to sea. It was around 11 on a sunny morning that I had headed down to the beach to keep our appointment. I found Shambhu sitting with another man, who he introduced as Ramu, finishing their lunch. This essentially consisted of watery rice with salt, with little bits of fried fish. Most of the fishermen rarely got to eat any of their catch themselves. Their marginal existences ensure that they handed over most of their catch for sale. More often than not, they are content to eat just rice and lentils.

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Photo: Large catch, but not for the fishermen [Click to enlarge]

“Abhi shuru karenge” he assured me, seeing my expecting face. (We will start soon.)

“Nao kahan?” I asked. (Where is the boat?)

“Udhar”, he vaguely pointed behind me. (There.)

Turning around, I saw a large boat, with a heavy net loaded on it, a short distance away. Neither the boat nor the net looked like something just two people could handle. I looked at Shambhu with a puzzled expression.

“Nahin, udhar”. This time he pointed clearly. (No, there)

“Woh”, I exclaimed. The shock of it caught my breath. (That!)

Two pieces of wood, somewhat rounded at their bottoms, tied in parts by plastic strings. They were hardly more than 10 ft in length. I had initially assumed these were the discarded remains of larger boats.

But no, that was to be our boat. And to top it, there was no net that I could see anywhere.

I was at a loss to imagine how this boat could work in the open sea, or how it might even cross the line of waves that broke next to the shore. I am a reasonably good swimmer, so I was not that afraid, but mentally I prepared myself for a long swim back. The biggest threat of capsizing is next to the shore, where the waves would rise in and break, upsetting the boats they caught unawares.

We got on the boat and started. I sat in the middle, while Shambhu and Ramu sat on both ends, with Ramu holding the keel. Shambhu got off the boat and paddled alongside, pushing the boat. Soon we neared the line of the breakers. A swell started to form, and a long glistening arc of sunshine curved up to the lip where the wave was began to tip over. Riding the crest at the right moment, Shambhu guided the boat and gave a deft push. A sharp lift of the stern, and then we were in the open sea!

Soon, we were paddling deeper into the sea, the roar of the breakers fading into a distant murmur. It was a beautiful calm day, and the surface of the sea was broken here and there by gentle swells. It was like a skin on the smooth sea floor some twenty feet below us. The sunlight wrinkled the surface, as it dove through to playfully dance on the yellow white sand below.

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It was then that Shambhu magically produced fishing gear.

Or what passed for it.

A piece of thermocol, with a plastic string wound around it. Little hooks were stuck to the string.

After twenty years of fishing, is this all that he could call his own? Not even the smallest of nets or a good fishing reel?

Of course, he would go on major fishing trips with a large crew, but on those trips he would make little profit not to mention that he would not get any catch at all. For getting his own catch, this was all that he had. Buying fish was out of the question.

Later I learnt that even the boat did not belong to him. He had loaned it.

He methodically stuck some bait onto the hooks, attached the thread to his finger, and laid back. The noon sun shone down, and the whole world seemed to stand still. The gentle swell of the sea was rocking the boat, lulling me into drowsiness. Ramu had lit up a bidi, while Shambhu seemed only partially awake.

Suddenly I was startled by a nearby splash. I was certain that it was not a wave hitting the boat; it must have been something in the sea nearby. Neither Shambhu nor Ramu looked alarmed in the least. But I anxiously scanned the sea around me, wanting to see the source of the noise.

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Chapter 6. The Olive Ridley turtle

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And then I saw it. It was a large Olive Ridley turtle. It seemed to be playfully splashing about, perhaps for our entertainment. It turned around a couple of times, and then with a deft stroke of its flippers, was gone as soon as it had come.

An Olive Ridley in its natural surrounding is a majestic creature. No longer bound by gravity, it spins, flips, and speeds off at will. But that was in the sea. Dead or dying Olive Ridley’s in the Goapalpur beach are not an uncommon sight. Sometimes, they would be snared in the fishermen’s nets and dumped out on the beach when the catch was sorted. Injured or otherwise unable to return, the beached turtles would die and slowly rot in the sun. The crows would peck out as much as they could through the eyes, being the softest part of the turtle. Often the entrails would spill out as well, providing a bigger feast for carrion. It was a sad end for a majestic creature. Fishing was a threat, but not a dangerously threatening one.

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Photo: A dead Olive Ridley on Gopalpur beach

And yet the Olive turtles are facing a far greater peril today. Despite environmental concerns raised by Greenpeace and other groups, the Tata’s, who are India’s leading mining giant, are going ahead with the construction of a steel plant at the Damra port, which is going to be right next to the Gahirmatha sanctuary, the last remaining nesting site of the Olive Ridley turtles. Some 300,000 to 500,000 turtles come to nest there every year, some from as far away as the Phillipines and Indonesia. Despite assurances by the Tata’s about the safety of the turtles, this makes the turltes prospects appear grim. In 1996, toxic waste from a chemical soda ash plant operated by the Tata’s in Mithapur, Gujrat, spilled over and severely affected the adjacent biodiversity rich coastal area. 10 km of the sea coast was severely degraded; almost destroying the affected ecosystem.

A repeat of Mithapur in Gahirmatha could spell the end for the endangered turtle.

We caught little in that trip. A couple of small sting rays, and a small fish. Shambhu chose to keep the rays. They fluttered as he carefully removed them from the hook, and then deftly cut a nerve below them. I saw the rays slowly go limp soon after.

It seemed very little in return for the time spent out. Yet this was at least something that they could eat for themselves. Not too long after we returned, he would have to set off on a much longer trip with a large crew.

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Chapter 7. Evenings with Babu: Tata’s shrimp fisheries, the kewda industry, and basketball

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Evenings would stretch out eternally in this remote town. I would often spend a long time talking with Babu and his brother, who ran the main water front restaurant in this area – the Sea Shell. We would often sit on top of the steps that led down to the beach below, with the red glow of the tandoor of the restaurant behind us. The futile stabs of the lighthouse as its beam arced its way across the dark sea in the distance only exacerbated the darkness, broken here and there by the froth of the waves below us.

Babu himself was in his twenties, almost my age, when I first met him. He was an aspiring basketball player. He even went to the state coaching camp, but, he said, the conditions put him off. They were supposed to get a basketball each, and pair of Nikes. Instead, the whole team got only one basketball and made-in-India “Power” shoes each. This was before the age of globalization when Nike’s were not available in India stores. Dispirited, and realising that sports was not an occupation he could afford to be in, Babu joined his brothers in operating the restaurant.

“To idhar log karte kyan hain”, I once inquired of him. By then, it was clear to me that not every local was a fisherman, so they must have had some other employment.

“Kuch log kewda business mein kaam karte hain”, he replied.

I remember the late summer evenings, when I would take the auto down the Gopalpur port. The road to the port stretched north of the backwater, past heavily vegetated land thick with kewda plants. The heady aroma of kewda would hang heavy across the road as the autorickshaw rattled and bumped across the red laterite road. Only a little distance from the sea, this seemed like an entirely different world.

This flower grew wild all over Ganjam, one of the few places in the world where it is found in large quantities in the wild. It is highly prized in India and in the middle-East for its extract, which is used in food and in essential oils. Preparation of the extract was a very labour intensive process and employed a large seasonal workforce depending on when the flower would bloom. The flowers needed to be collected at a specific time early in the morning, and a large number of them boiled to manufacture the extract.

Though the business was lucrative, the actual number of kewda processing plants were few, as the government had not promoted this industry. It offered employment opportunities for locals and also was an environmentally sustainable option, but the state government would not profit much from it, especially in comparison with business like construction or mining. Nevertheless, some kewda distilleries, like the one run by Babu’s brother, kept the business alive.

“Aur baki log? Chingri fishery mein kaam karte hain kya?” I inquired, trying to sound knowledgeable. (And the others? Do they work in the shrimp fisheries?)

“Chingri fishery mein bohut kam logon ka kaam milta hai. Wahape bas ek hi aadmi ko thik sein kaam milta hai – woh hain fishery director. Uske liye degree chahiye.” (Few people get any employment at the fishery. Essentially just one, a director, who has a degree)

He explained it to me. A pregnant shrimp is highly valued. But it can lay eggs only at specific temperature, salinity, and pH conditions. These were determined and monitored by the director.

Shrimp fishing is environmentally destructive and leaves a terrible trail of pollution. It has been sometimes compared to an underwater nuclear bomb because of the impact that it causes. The feed and excrement involved in the shrimp farm, and the antibiotics and fertilizers given, lay waste to the ecosystem in the region, and also leads to plankton blooms, further depriving the water of oxygen and life. Many fishes in the sea come to the coast to lay eggs and breed, and shrimp fisheries have severely affected these breeding grounds. And yet the practice continues. Shrimp fisheries dot the Orissa coast. In addition, shrimp trawling also is responsible for the death of many Olive Ridley turtles.

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Even the locals realize that this is not a good practice. Apart from the environmental impact, it provided few jobs, and almost all of the shrimps were exported anyway.

In 1999 the Tata’s announced plans to open shrimp fisheries in Chilka lake, one of the largest brackish water inland lakes in India, world-renowned for it’s rich ecological biodiversity. The idea was to make profit from the produce and also to create showcase fisheries to attract tourism. Only a concerted effort by environmental groups and a court order stopped the construction of the fisheries.

The Tata’s are one of the largest mining companies in the world. They pride themselves for being environmentally and socially responsible. One wonders how they decided to unleash the fisheries on the fragile ecosystem, impacting both nature and the fishermen and ordinary people who lived around the lake. It would have been a lucrative business, but not as lucrative as their other large mining operations.

But in this remote corner of the world, how do ecological and social considerations matter? To the rest of the world, Orissa for the most part was a remote backwater, and few people cared to know what was happening there.

And so life went on in this remote town. A stillness that seemed timeless and unbreakable.

But the spell was about to be broken.

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Chapter 8. Changing times at Ocean House

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In October 19th 1999 Gopalpur was directly hit by a cyclone. The meteorological office had seen it coming, and had given the fishermen warning to stay out of the water. Yet the ordinary people and even some the fishermen were not fully warned about the extent of the impending catastrophe.

In the evening, when the winds had already picked up, and people had started to shutter up, a police jeep made rounds announcing that the storm could cause very severe damage. Many just did not get to hear the announcement. They had prepared themselves for some rough winds, but had no idea of what was about to hit them.

By eight the high winds had been replaced by the ravening storm. Like a ferocious beast that clawed and ripped anything that came in its way in a mighty fury, the winds picked up small houses and tea stalls made of sticks and wood and swept them into nothingness. Straw roofs of many houses were whipped away, leaving their inmates crouching with fear below. Countless betel-nut and coconut trees snapped and smashed into nearby houses. Even the mighty TV tower was wrenched from its base and left twisted and mangled in a heap on the grounds next to the lighthouse.

And with the wind the sea rose in a blinding rage. Large powerful waves, lashed at the rock wall around the Oberoi Grand hotel, tore at the steps in the waterfront that led to the seabeach, and crashed on any boats or nets that were left too close to the beach. The large rocks that made the walls that surrounded of the Oberoi Grand gardens were torn apart, the steps in the waterfront were smashed, and any boat or net that was not bound was wrenched and carried off into the deeps. Two concrete columns that supported a jetty in the Gopalpur port buckled as if made of rotten wood.

Before the state could react to the devastation, an even greater cataclysm shook Orissa, this time further north. This time, on October 29th, a super cyclone, with winds reaching 300km/hr, hit the coast between Puri and Paradeep. This time the wall of water swept miles inland, killing and dragging anything that came in its way. Some 15 million people were left homeless. The scale of the devastation was unbelievable.

Orissa had rarely seen consecutive cyclones of this magnitude. Was this just a chance occurrence, or a portent of times to come, in a world whose climate is slowly passing the tipping point?

I returned to Gopalpur the next year, late in 2000. In effect, I was one of the first tourists to go there after the cyclone. Reports had indicated that the place was still in ruins, and the few tourists who regularly visited decided to leave it alone for a while.

Gopalpur was no longer the same. As if awakening from its long slumber, this small coastal town suddenly felt old and broken. The shattered visage of the beach, the bare broken wall of the houses, trees which had not still been cleared from where they had fallen, were all testament to the terror that had stalked that fateful night a year ago. Fetid pools of sewage and garbage lay everywhere, with flies swarming over them, testament to a complete breakdown of the infrastructure.

Ocean house was still standing, though I could make out that a portion of the roofing was gone. Mr.Smith’s favourite palm tree had crashed, taking a part of the wall with it.

Kamdu heaved a sigh of relief when she saw me. Even Trilochon, who was normally inscrutable, was visibly relieved.

Kamdu’s roof had been blown off in the storm. As the storm had raged overhead, she had cowered, below, along with her son and his two young children, a boy and a girl, the latter only a few years old.

And Mr. Smith was unwell. Shortly after the storm, he had suffered a heart attack, and was now left semi-conscious and partially paralyzed. Now an anxious and pensive Kamdu and Trilochon cared for him, though with few tourists coming by, their own situations were very precarious.

Kamdu herself had woken up to the realization that she was suffering from diabetes. Feeling heavy and somnolent in the evenings, she had consulted a finally doctor and learned that she was suffering from diabetes. Unable to pay for the medication, she had chosen to control her disease with the extracts of a naturally occurring medicinal flower that grew in the region. Though it was not as good as a periodic insulin shot, it was sufficiently effective in providing a semblance of normalcy in her life.

The biodiversity rich forests of Orissa and Chhattisgarh have many rare medicinal flowers. Many of the locals are well aware of this, and have extensively use the extracts from these plants for curing illnesses and even when treating wounds or snakebites.

“Saab ko kuch hua to Ocean House ko kya hoga?” I asked Kamdu and Trilochon. (If something happens to Mr. Smith, what will happen to the Ocean House?)

“Babu, saab ne kuch saal pahile log bulake hum donoko yeh ghar upna will mein likh diya. Woh chala jayaga to yeh ghar humara hoga. Lekin ghar mein kya hoga babu? Hum to chahte hai kya saab acha rahe. Woh chala jayaga to humara kya hoga? “ Trilochon replied. (Sir, the sahib has willed us the house a few years ago. But what will we do with it? We want him to remain well.

“Unka ghar sein koi aaya nahin?” I inquired. (No one came from his family?)

“Koi nahin, babu. Hum unko ladki ko England mein call kiya. Woh boli a sakti hain, phir aayi nahin,” Kamdu replied. (No one came, babu. We called his daughter in England. She said she might come, but she did not.)

And so they lived, the two of them, with the ailing Mr. Smith, in Ocean House. Few tourists would come by any longer. Who would want to stay in a guest house run by a fisherwoman and a local? Though they tried their best to maintain the place, more work was evidently needed. Trilochon had purchased some bricks and mortar and was trying to repair the boundary wall that had been damaged by the falling tree. But parts of the roof still needed to be replaced, and it was not clear how that could be achieved. Mr. Smith’s annuity was not much, and these repairs would require great expenses, which needed the place to have more visitors.

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Chapter 9. The TISCO plant

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The shadow had come, but it had not passed. The lives it touched were about to see greater sorrow.

That evening, talking to Babu, I learned more details about the cyclone and its aftermath. The roof of the Sea Shell restaurant had been blown away and only the base concrete structure had been left standing. For three weeks, there was no power in the city. When power was restored without warning, it was turned on at twice the voltage allowed, and electrical equipment that had been plugged to the wall were instantly fried. The large freezer that the restaurant used was destroyed, resulting in an even greater loss than the actual damage to the restaurant.

But the cyclone was not the only thing that had visited Gopalpur.

“Phir yeh TISCO ka plant ko kya hua?” I asked Babu. (So what happened with the TISCO plant?)

A few months after the cyclone, the agitation around the proposed steel plant by the Tata’s in Gopalpur, near the port, had hit the headlines of Indian news. In the proposed plan, more than 25000 people were to lose their homes. Relocation packages had been announced, but where is one to relocate people who lived off the land, either making their living off the kewda flowers, or betel nut, or farming rice? What about the impact to the local villagers, what would they do if they had to stay in a room where they could not pay the electricity bill? If the site would be only a few kilometers away from the port, in a less arable land, these people would be spared. But that would incur extra infrastructural expense of setting up roads, housing, etc. The plant assured few jobs, if any, to replace the livelihoods lost. Any highly paid jobs were to be staffed by qualified outsiders, just like in the shrimp fisheries.

The local people had risen up in revolt, and met with stiff opposition from the state, who backed Tata’s decision. The corporate occupied some of the land, and some 10,000 people were displaced. Yet after the sustained agitation, the Tata’s were forced to back down and scrapped the steel plant. To an extent, this decision also depended on the failure of the state government to provide the promised infrastructural support.

But Tata’s never returned the land they had already acquired. A few years later, they claimed they would build an SEZ (Special Economic Zone) there. The latest is that they want to make a Coal to Liquid plant. Who knows, maybe next we know that this will be Orissa’s answer to Maharashtra’s Aambi valley, the first private city in India with its own private swimming pools and expensive bungalows and air service?

“Yeh log development hone ko nahin dega.” Babu complained, bemoaning the fact that the agitation had stopped the project. “Yehape corruption bohut zyada hain”. (These people will not allow any development. There is too much corruption).

“Lekin wahape jo log rahte the, kewda picking me the, uska kya hoga? “ I asked him. (But what would happen to the locals, those who pick kewda?)

“Haan, yeh to baat hain. Lekin Ganjam ka to development chahiye. Hum kya eise hi rahenge?” (Yes, that is true. But Ganjam needs development. Are we to remain this way?)

“Tumhara bhai ka kewda factory kaise chal raha hain?” I asked, wanting to know how this affected his own family. (How is the kewda factory of your brother coming along?)

“Woh to kuch saal pahile bandh ho giya. Idhar business karna mushkil hain. Etna corruption hai, kuch development ho nahin sakta” , he seemed to unhappily recognize this turn of events. (That shut down a few years ago. It is difficult to run business here. There is too much corruption, and no development can take place.)

Was he directly impacted? I was not sure. I knew that many kewda distilleries had to shut down because of the steel plant. Yet he and his brother had an alternate livelihood. What about the people who did not?

And is this development? Is it a illusion we all must share, even if it will have negative impact on all our lives? A steel plant would bring more guests who are mining officials, something that would help the tourism industry, but is that all? And what would that replace?

The Tata’s are planning similar operations all across Orissa, and in neighbouring Jhanrkhand and Chhattisgarh. Clashes in Lohandiguda, Narayanpatna, and Kalinganagar have killed and terrorized many of the local people. And today, with increasing foreign investment in India’s mining sector, foreign firms are repeating the same process. The South Korean mining firm POSCO, in which Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has significant investments, is proposing to displace 25000 people in a region around Jagatsinghpur in northern Orissa. The 12 billion $ project is going to impact both farmers and local fishermen, as POSCO plans to build their own port as well. Even the Indian government has admitted that the POSCO deal has violated the rights of the people. But any resistance, like in Narayanpatna or Kalinganagar, is met with brutal crackdown by the authorities. The state does not hesitate to shoot down those who protest.

Change will come. Change has come. But who that change will benefit remains to be seen.

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Photo: The father reflects on the past while the son looks ahead to the future

Chapter 10. The flotsam of life

It was another few years before I could return to Gopalpur.

I vividly remember that day. I had a trepidation that things might have taken a worse in Ocean House, and as I approached it, my worst fears were confirmed.

Like a person whose eyes had been gouged out and bandaged, the beautiful patio in the top floor had been walled and cemented up. A sign next to the gate proclaimed “Pharmacy College.”

I quickly deposited my bags in a neighbouring hotel and rushed to find Trilochon, who I knew also worked in a nearby shop.

The rains had come, and a downpour had just started to ease up. Arcs of splatter still waved across the road, and the betel and the palm trees swayed as if in agreement. Few fingers of lightning stretched across the sky, in an impotent attempt to knock down the lighthouse.

“Babu, tum abhi aya!” he exclaimed, half in hope and disbelief. (Babu, you came now!)

“Ocean House ka kya hua, Trilochon”? (What happened to the Ocean house, Trilocon?)

“Saab chala giya. Who ghar ko shahr ko babu le liya.” (Mr. Smith is no more. And a babu of the city has taken it.)

“Yeh to nehin ho sakta hain Trilochon. Saab to tum logo ko ghar likh ke diya tha.” (This cannot happen. I know he willed it to you two.)

“Haan, babu. Lekin unka jab bohut bimari tha, to unka daktar nein kuch shahar ko babu ko bulake laya. Woh log humko saab ko paas janeko nehin diye. Saab do din mein chala gaye, aur woh humko bola kya saab unlogon ko ghar bech diya. Who log humko uska kagaz dikhaya.” (Yes, babu. But when he was very ill, the doctor got some people from the city, who did not allow us to come near Mr. Smith any more. He died in a few days, and they said that Mr. Smith had sold the house to them. They showed us the deed of sale)

“Kahan hain who receipt. Tumhara paas hain?” (Where is it? Do you have a copy?)

“Hain. Kamdu ka paas” (Yes, Kamdu has a copy)

We hurried to Kamdu’s place. Despite my many visits to the city, I had never visited her home earlier. She lived in the slum that sprawled behind the main beachfront. The sewers there had started to overflow in the rains, and the stench and filth was quite overwhelming. Trilochon led me to a small one storied house, where Kamdu lived with her son and her two grandchildren.

Kamdu came out to meet me when he called out that I had come. On Trilochon’s request, she went and got the copy of the sales receipt.

“Babu, tum dekho yeh kagaz dekho. Yeh dastkhat dekho, yeh to saab ka nahin hain. Saab ko kitne bimari tha, unko pata hi nahin tha kye ho rahan hain. Woh kaise isko smajhke dastkhat karega?”. (Babu, look at this paper. This is not his signature. He was unwell, he was not even aware what was happening around him. How could he understand and sign this paper?)

I remember three of us stood looking at the piece of paper, trying to determine if the signature was indeed genuine. The scrawl was indeed illegible, and could be anyone’s. I had seen Mr. Smith sign in the guest book, and understandably he was very ill in the end, but this scrawl seemed something very different.

But you know the actual reason, Kamdu? Fate has written a sign on your forehead on your birth. And the same for Trilochon. And that is clearly legible, everybody who sees you can make that out. You are a low caste uneducated fisherwoman. The colour of your skin, the clothes and jewellery you wear say who you are. And Trilochon an ordinary local. How can you own property? What would the TISCO babu’s who come next door in the guest house think if you lived in this house? How can one you explain it to them? What would happen to the prestige of Gopalpur’s waterfront?

And who is Mr. Smith anyway? He was a foreigner. Can a foreigner ever belong in this country? Can a fisher woman or a local farmer ever belong? This is not their land. They can be tolerated in society, perhaps even given a position as maids or servants, but the society in the cities can never accept them.

Her heavy face showed that she had little hope about redress. But she had glimpsed the truth as well. “Hum to fisherman hain babu, humko kaise yeh milega. Sab to ghar babuka hain. Log humko maanega? Humko malum tha, tab bhi hum soche the”, her voice trailed off. (I am of the fishing community. How can I own a house. All houses belong to the Babu’s How will they people accept me. We knew all of this, and yet we had hoped .. )

Next time I meant to meet Kamdu, it was again several years later. Even with the steel plant project shelved, things were changing fast. The steps in the main beach front had been repaired. The tourism industry had seemed to at last have taken notice of this beautiful beach, and a few high end hotels and resorts had opened up. But these places employed few locals, and many people from different states, some with hotel management degrees, had come to work in these resorts, which were out of bounds for common people. However, some jobs had been generated, and the broken houses and roads had started to show signs of repair.

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Photo: Kamdu and her family

This time, I found her house by myself. It was late in the afternoon when I met her. She was sitting outside her house, brightly dressed and bejeweled as always. Her eyes lighted up when she say me, and she heavily got up and greeted me.

“Kab aya Babu.” (When did you come, babu?)

“Kal aaye the, kal hi chala jayenge.” (I came here yesterday, will leave tomorrow.)

“Babu aaiye, undear aaiye.” (Babu, come inside the house)

I stepped into the room. Her grandson was playing there.

“Tumhara nati kaahan hain?” (Where is your granddaughter?)

“Who mar giya babu, pichli saal.” (She died, babu, last year.)

I was shocked. “Kaise? kya huya?” (How? What happened?)

“Who bahar khel rahi thi, uska pair kut giya. Kuch kachra ya gobor undar khun mein lag giya hoga. Kuch din baad tetanus huya, mar gayi.” (She was playing outside, when she cut her foot. Some dirt or cowdung must have entered her blood though it. She died a few days later of tetanus.)

“Dawai nehi diya?” (You never gave her medicines?)

“Hum kya kare babu. Hum to garib hain, utna doctor ko paas kaise jata? Jub who bimar ho gayi, hum leke gaya hospital, lekin who kuch kar nahin paya. Humara bohut din sein dukh huwa, baat kar nehin payein.” (What can I do, Babu. I am poor, how can I visit the doctor always? We finally took her to the hospital, but they could not do anything. I was sad for many days, I would not talk much.)

Yes, people in these slums have shelter. But in what conditions? And without any social improvement, the people who live here are can have little hope or certainly about their lives. And at least Kamdu had a son who had some earning through fishing. If she was displaced because of some industry, where would she go? What would be her place in a large city where nobody would accept her?

I asked her about Trilochon. He had lost his other job, and had taken up some kind of job in the city. Only rarely, would he come to Gopalpur and visit.

It was getting to be evening when I turned to go home. Just as I was leaving the slum, I came across a familiar face, that of a fisherman who earned his living as a nulia (lifeguard) who I had seen on and off in Gopalpur. Apparently, he had had some kind of ligament or tendon injury in his wrist, due to which he was not able to work in the big boats. I was a bit wary as I approached him, as he seemed to be somewhat drunk. Yet, I said hello to him. He was standing by the door of a one roomed cement building, and a light behind him streamed past him and cast his silhouette.

“Kaise ho babu. “ (How are you, Babu)

“ Acha hoon, tum?”(I am well, you?)

“Babu, kuch mahne pahel kuch shahar ka babu humara sola saal ki beti ko uthake leke giye jab who gar aa rahi thi. Hum do din sein dhudha, nahin mila. Phir who log usko wapis chorke chala gaya, kuch doso timso rupaiya deke. Who toh mar gayi thi. Ek hapte sein pani nahin piya, sab ulti kar rahi thi. Phir uska dimak thik nahin raha babu. “ (Babu, some months ago some babu’s from the city came and took away my sixteen year old daughter as she was returning home. I tried to find her for two days, I could not find her. After that they returned her, with a few hundred rupees. She was almost dead. She was not even able to drink water for a week, she would throw everything up. And now she seems to have lost her mental balance.)

“Police ka paas nehin giya?” (You did not go the police?)

“Hum kahan jayenge babu. Hum to fishman hain, who shahr ki babau. Humara baat kaun manega? Humara zindagi ka kya bhao hain babu.?” (Where can I go, Babu? I am a fishman. Who will listen to me? What is the value of my life?)

“Babu esi liye haum pite hain. Kya kare babu, humara beti, usko kisi tarah sein jeeke rakhna hain. Humara bhi samsar hain.” (Babu, that is why I drink. But our lives must somehow go on. I have to keep my daughter alive somehow.)

The flotsam of life.

But somehow, these people still wanted to stay alive. Neglected and humiliated by society, and now threatened by industrialisation and climate change, they still hope to somehow survive. On the surface, there is an utter hopelessness; yet, with their own improvised gadgets, with the medicines that they get from nature, with the makeshift fishing gear, with the tiny fishing boat, they somehow strive to survive. As Dr. Binayak Sen said in his speech, the people who lived off the land have a very fragile connection with existence, something that the external world is threatening to destroy today. But even in these terrible times, one can but not marvel at the way these people can cling on to hope and find their own solutions.

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Photo: A scrawl in the sand and the shy artist who created it

Like the box kite.

The box kite

I remember I went down to the beach again, the evening I flew the kite. The sun had gone down not long ago, and the sea was fading in colour, turning a steely gray. The first whispers of the stars were making their presence felt, and the dark scrawls of the clouds stretched over the beach and the surrounding land, like a child’s chiaroscuro etched against the sky.

The string was still attached to the wooden staff and it stretched out, as far as I could see, past the trees, over the adjacent ridge, in the direction of the lighthouse. Following it, I could make out the unmistakable black dot against the sky.

The kite was still flying high.

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4 Comments »

4 Responses to “The Incredible Box Kite: Chronicles of travels in Gopalpur-On-Sea”

  1. Ratnabh Says:
    May 20th, 2010 at 06:18

    Excellent writing.

  2. Abhisek Says:
    July 6th, 2011 at 06:16

    Awasome! I haven’t seen a better description about Gopalpur than this. It is a wonderful piece that is woven around the serene palm beach of Gopalpur and the nearby areas of Berhampur city.
    Great writing!

  3. Lokesh Roy Says:
    April 29th, 2012 at 07:49

    The anecdotes are truly impressive.It is a testimony to the deep sense of attachment that Mr Siddartha Mitra has for this place.Undoubtedly,the place needs to be saved from any threat to it’s unique environment.The ecosystem should not be destroyed for the vested interest groups in the name of employment generation.Employment can very well be secured through the immense tourism potential the place offers.

  4. Baltimore DUI Lawyer Says:
    May 7th, 2014 at 10:19

    I needed to thank you for this very good read!! I absolutely loved
    every little bit of it. I have got you bookmarked to look at new
    things you post…

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