MV Chowra docked at Campbell Bay, the administrative headquarters of Great Nicobar Island late on Christmas evening. The Range Forest Officer, Mr Das, was waiting for Harish and Seema at the jetty and they set off straightaway for the turtle camp at Galathea Bay forty kilometres away. The road hugged the coast for the most part, riding over muddy brown creeks, cutting through coconut plantations rich with large fruit, and past settlements with large houses made of timber and corrugated tin sheeting. Shastrinagar at the 35 kilometres mark was the last settlement along this road, and it was just as they passed the last house here that Das slowed his vehicle, pulled aside and stopped by a small shop with a huge areca plantation behind it. Potatoes, onions, biscuits packets, slippers, towels, coconuts, packets of grain and spices, all lay together in the few shelves on display in the front. The shop was dimly lit and rather empty otherwise. A kerosene stove buzzed incessantly outside and a small kettle hissed vapour in an unintended duet. The only exceptional feature of the shop was its name, which seemed to have been freshly painted on a big board by the roadside
This was an accurate rendering of the shop&rsquos geography nothing indeed lay beyond Balbir Singh&rsquos little entrepreneurial venture. Everyone who came here for the first time found this amusing and Seema smiled too as she saw the Board. For researchers going into the wilderness beyond, this was the last outpost of modern life.
Harish had been here a few months ago, and immediately recognised the old man sitting on a stool by the stove&mdashthe seventy-year-old proprietor with a long, flowing silver beard. He said a polite namaste, and sat down on the bench. The old man appeared to recognize Harish too, and returned his greeting with a pleasant smile.
&lsquoCan we have some tea, Sardarji&rsquo Das called out from his vehicle, &lsquoand Harish,&rsquo he continued, &lsquoplease pick up the provisions that you want. You know you won&rsquot get much at the camp. I think you should take some basic stuff&mdashrice, dal, sugar, tea, pickle, some potatoes, onions and maybe...&rsquo he scanned the shelves to see if he could find something interesting, &lsquoyes, take that tin of Haldiram&rsquos rasogollas, but first check how old it is.&rsquo
Tea and shopping done, the visitors started off again. From here, the road went winding up a gentle gradient, then descended sharply and moved along the coast for a little before it cut more deeply into the forest. When it finally emerged, they found themselves at Galathea Bay. Here, at the mouth of the river Galathea, a wide beach of silver sand extended into the distance like a graceful arc of the waning moon. This was one of the best places to watch endangered sea turtles as they came out to nest.
The turtle camp of the Forest Department here was only a small bamboo shack, holed up in a small forest clearing by the beach. Camp Officer Winbrite Guria saluted Das, and said a big hello to Harish. He too had recognised Harish from his last visit. &lsquoIf you need anything, tell Winbrite,&rsquo Das said to Harish, and then turned to Winbrite, who had just unloaded the bags from the vehicle. &lsquoOk, Winbrite I&rsquoll come back tomorrow afternoon.&rsquo
&lsquoYes, sir.&rsquo Winbrite saluted again as Das returned to his vehicle.
The sun had retired for the night, and as was the practice here, the staff had already had their evening meal. Some dal and rice was now set to cook for the visitors. As they waited, Winbrite explained with an apology, &lsquoHope you can manage somehow tonight. There is no sleeping place inside the hut, but first thing tomorrow morning we&rsquoll organise something. Madam has come here for the first time, I&rsquom really sorry.&rsquo
Harish had been here earlier and knew the forest staff quite well. He had been in these islands for only a little more than a year, but had already travelled quite widely and wildly, covering almost its entire length &mdash from Landfall in the north of the Andamans to the Nicobars in the south, even into parts of the Jarawa Reserve that very few had visited. Improvising had become a way of life be it shacking up in a police station in a remote village, spending a rainfilled night alongside cows in an abandoned bus shelter, being out at sea for over a week on a dungi or sleeping on the jetty because the evening boat had left ten minutes before schedule, he&rsquod endured it all. Sleeping on a pristine beach like this one, with a starlit sky for a canopy was better than most other situations he&rsquod encountered. He would be fine. He looked at Seema. She seemed pretty alright too.
&lsquoWe&rsquoll be fine, Winbrite,&rsquo Harish placed a hand on his shoulder. &lsquoDon&rsquot worry.&rsquo
&lsquoYes, yes,&rsquo Seema quickly added. &lsquoDon&rsquot worry, Winbrite. I&rsquoll be fine. I&rsquom an island girl.&rsquo
It was about quarter past seven by the time the two had their simple meal for the night. Harish now unfurled a huge blue tarpaulin sheet and spread it out on the beach some distance from the turtle camp.
&lsquoHopefully,&rsquo he said to Seema, &lsquowe&rsquoll be beyond the high tide line and won&rsquot have to run when the tide comes in. The tide&rsquos beginning to rise, but it&rsquos still a couple of hours from being full. That&rsquos when the turtles will start to climb.&rsquo
They placed their haversacks on two corners and a couple of largish logs on the other edges, to hold down the blue sheet and then settled down on it themselves. It was Seema who broke the silence after a while. &lsquoYou were so quiet, even contemplative, throughout the journey. Something on your mind Is everything okay&rsquo
&lsquoThings are fine,&rsquo Harish smiled and went quiet again.
Seema waited a while, hoping Harish would say something but there wasn&rsquot a word. Finally, she cleared her throat deliberately, to gain his attention. &lsquoHarish, I,&rsquo she paused, &lsquoI was wondering, if you got my letter&rsquo
&lsquoLetter You wrote me a letter&rsquo he asked in a tone with genuine surprise.
&lsquoYes. Why are you surprised&rsquo
&lsquoNo, I mean... yes. I got it. Of course I did.&rsquo
&lsquoYes,&rsquo Harish continued, &lsquothat postcard from Delhi with the dates of your arrival in Port Blair, and those too were wrong.&rsquo
&lsquoOh, that. Not the postcard... It was after that, a much longer letter.&rsquo Seema paused and Harish waited for her to say something else. &lsquoOkay,&rsquo she said dejectedly, &lsquolet it be then&rsquo
&lsquoArre, what happened&rsquo
&lsquoNo, Harish, it&rsquos okay. I&rsquoll just stroll along the beach for a while. You sleep now. Goodnight&rsquo
She got up and walked away before he could say anything.
Harish was intrigued. &lsquoSeema&rsquos written me a letter, and a long one What could it have been And why did she walk away like that I&rsquod better ask her tomorrow&mdashdon&rsquot want so much hanging in the air,&rsquo Harish thought as he sat staring at the sky and the ocean. In a while, he pulled out the mosquito net from his sack and tucked it under his head, zipped open his sleeping bag, snuggled in and closed his eyes. Seema, meanwhile, had reached the far end of the white sands. She stood here for a few minutes watching the waves before turning to walk back.
Note The &lsquoSouthernmost General Stores of India&rsquo was swept away in the 2004 tsunami.