Of Pigs on the Wing & A Damsel at Sea
*For die-hard fans of Pink Floyd, a disclaimer that I have taken the liberty to caption pictures with some of their song titles—and have tweaked some of the song titles for my own happiness!
In the 1970s, Pink Floyd released the song ‘Pigs on the wing’ in the album ’Animals’. A youthful fascination for the song made me wonder then if pigs could ever fly. The answer is strangely enough ‘Yes’, only if you consider cockroaches to be piggier than regular pigs. Let me explain.
These thoughts came back to me recently as I stood listening to a bunch of nurses and hospital staff fervently singing ‘Hark the herald angels sing’. It was December of 2009 and we were all passengers on a cockroach-ridden ship returning to Port Blair from the Nicobar Islands. My mind wandered back to Floyd’s psychedelic fancies; cockroaches I imagined could be angels hovering above the bunch of men and women heralding in Christmas.
The tub we were on, the M.V. Sentinel, is an old ship still cutting water after more than 30 years at sea. She had been patched with ‘m-seal’ and coal tar over her rusty edges and then painted up to guarantee a certificate of sea worthiness. Her passengers were ostensibly human, but her main cargo seemed to be cockroaches, bed bugs, rats, and other scurrying creatures. The ships blowers and air conditioner gave up on that journey, and, as the crew’s bunks were located closest to the engine room, it must have been hell for them. I suspect it was to avoid a mutiny, that the Captain decided to let the passenger cabins be used by the crew, with only bunk and deck space available for passengers!
I was returning from another bout of field work at three sites in the Nicobar Islands. The Islands are where I attempt to fathom the intricacies of natural resource use and management among islander communities in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. The Nicobaris lived along the coast, fishing, tending pigs and chicken, and harvesting their coconut plantations – the mainstay of their former economy. The coast harbored a host of natural resources and species within easy reach, some which were protected through local regulations and others through seemingly benign consumption practices. The Islands harbor biological diversity despite centuries of use by indigenous Islanders. Their unique management system has largely consisted of access to resources through permissions and sharing among and between themselves. Cheating was rare and strictly reprimanded. The tsunami not only reduced the available coastal resources, but also created unusual social upheavals amidst the rehabilitative process.
My work in the Islands was stressful as I was constantly reminded of how the lives of the Nicobaris had changed after the tsunami unleashed its destruction four years ago. Uncertainty is the cloud that many Islanders travel on today. Soon after the event some were not sure what to make of their circumstances, with the damage caused by the tsunami and the deluge of rehabilitative aid thereafter. For others, this was the moment to amass some wealth by cadging any government largesse through compensation. For many others, the old life that they had been comfortable with made more sense and they patiently struggled to weave back those strands. Through all of these attitudinal shifts I try to understand how events have affected their sharing and cooperation patterns over the use of natural and domestic resources.
Understandably I was weary and the ticket on the old ship back to the base wasn’t a mood-enhancer. Given the condition of the ship, passengers had two choices, the company of bed bugs and cockroaches in steaming hot bunks below, or rats, cockroaches and the occasional bug for company on the airy deck. I’d been on this journey many times before and knew better than to meekly accept what lay in store. After loafing around on the deck till evening – passing time by staring into the blue sea and skimming through my book – I finally came across a friend, the Second Officer. I stored my precious equipment and belongings in his cabin and he kindly offered me a spare sofa to sleep on. Within minutes however, one of the ship’s bedbugs got to me! My friend handed me a few swigs of ‘Royal Challenge’ whisky saying, ‘Drink, you will soon be in a coma and the bugs will disappear!’ I hate the thought of a roach peering up my nostril, or cuddling up with a bed bug in bed. So I chatted with him till he went on to attend duties at the ship’s bridge and then hurried over to my preferred spot—the SOPEP locker on the upper deck! This is a large box containing life jackets, hoses, helmets and other paraphernalia to tackle pollution at sea; being an elevated region on deck, this was my safest bet.
I laid myself comfortably and looked up at the ships smoke stacks puffing at the stars above. The eager hospital staff nearby were not finished with their carol singing. I imagined the angel Gabriel as a large cockroach descending upon them and lifting them to heavenly bliss twitching its feelers over them soothing them to sound sleep. I was the one who couldn’t sleep. Gabriel is also the name of one of my key informants from a Nicobarese village where natural resources were wiped clean by the tsunami. Survivors of the tsunami including Gabriel were relocated to the heights on a grassland on Kamorta Island as a precautionary measure, though other factors of livelihood were not considered in this monocular vision of safety after the tsunami. The grasslands are a beautiful landscape that is desolate as far as livelihood resources are concerned; given this predicament the villagers relocated to such regions have survived for the past five years on Government aid and dole. Gabriel is one of the few to bounce back and begin recreating some of what he lost.
The majority lived in pecuniary delight for a while, given the flood of cash compensations and their inability to do much else on the grassland. They live distant from the coast now, with few canoes and functional boats. Fish are far to come by unlike in the past. Feeding their domestic pigs is now restricted to few days in a week, compared to the daily routine before. There are many more uncertainties ahead. I looked up above to see the moon obscured by a ghoulish and cottony cloud on its journey across the sky. The stars literally twinkled and danced about. I felt good on my elevated bed; safe, rocking free on the sea’s swell below the ship, breathing the clean cool air of the night. I didn’t have to worry about a livelihood on the grassland, or of what a governmental rehabilitation program meant, or of who stole coconuts kept aside to feed my pigs. Mosquitoes that come to life at dusk are normal; the heat of the day under tin roofed houses on the open grassland is abnormal. Life before the tsunami was lived under the shade of coconut palms on the beach, with the sea throwing up wonderful surprises on the shore each day, sometimes from distant lands. Rope, wooden planks, plastic or wooden toys, footwear from around the globe, containers of all types from the ubiquitous plastic water bottle to jerry cans and even biscuit packets that arrived every blue moon. There wasn’t much need to go shopping often, as the sea threw up different goods every now and then that could be put to some use or the other. It was possible to innovate with goods available for free on the shore. The rest of the world bought and used those goods, then discarded or emptied their bins into drains that led to the sea. The sea’s currents took over and distributed goods for all those along its shores. There is an old saying – the sea knows how to keep itself clean; what we throw into it, comes back on some shoreline. Islanders the world over and those on the coast have made best of these opportunities with the assortment of trash that washes ashore. Uses of this trash apart, seeing the mess on beaches only increases the disgust I have for urban spoils and chaos.
Material goods came with colonizers from distant lands with the promise of development, but largely to make money and lives of people like themselves more comfortable. The locals were soon won over. The few shops in town were for special occasions when cash was available and rations had to be sourced for lean periods such as the beginning of the monsoon. Otherwise life on the coast was a wholesome existence. Fish and other marine life were within easy reach, coconuts with multiple uses hung just above and the tree’s fronds shaded comfortable stilt houses close to the beach. Many families lived together and ate from a common kitchen, now with ‘permanent shelters’ they all live separate and on cement floors. Around those former stilted homesteads, domesticated pigs squealed and grunted while chickens clucked and crowed providing daily life some percussion. The sea’s breeze kept spirits high along with toddy sessions at the ready for any occasion. Canoes slid into and out of the water whenever needed. There were few motorized boats (if at all) then and the putting of an engine would make every head turn to see who passed by or arrived. Life had surely changed with one tsunami. For me, life on the SOPEP locker was good except for the thought of them pigs on the wing below.
Shifting my thoughts, I reflected on times when I had seen animals at sea. There were places where I saw real marine angels- manta rays gliding below the sea’s surface like dark shadows from the deep. Such sights were in contrast to the periscope like stare of saltwater crocodiles lying still on the surface of estuarine creeks. There were dolphins and sometimes porpoises that made an appearance while sailing, spinning or somersaulting out of the water or just popping around our dinghy smirking at us slowpokes. The grandest sight was a multitude, literally thousands of dolphins as far as my eye could see. This was when I sailed south to the Nicobar Islands more than a decade ago. It was some sort of mass migration that I’ve never seen again. The ship I was on seemed atom like amidst the sea of dolphins.
My biggest surprise was seeing Orcas in the Bay of Bengal one November in 1999. I was returning to the mainland for a short holiday, and saw large fins shearing the water’s surface and moving perpendicular to the ships path at dusk on our second day at sea. Only when I saw the large flipper of one of the males in the pod did I realize they were Killer whales. Seeing a sperm whale spouting into the sky at sea was very different from an occasion when an adult made its way into Port Blair harbor getting stuck and confused for two whole days until it oriented itself seaward and to freedom. Underwater life while snorkeling is another dreamy world of colour, grace and shapes as you glide above the reef peering through the confines of a mask. What’s seen on the surface is usually fleeting, ephemeral, and all about luck. I realized I was lucky to have seen these and more. I was safe from the ravaging cockroaches for now, and I turned myself to sleep.
It was the 25th and I woke up to a beautiful early morning sky tinged orange and blue with a slight but cool breeze. The nurses and hospital staff were still asleep and I had my early morning peace. I sat up cross legged on my prop like crow’s nest, blinking myself awake. The silhouettes of the Andaman Islands were coming into view through the early morning haze. The ship heaved and pitched over a lazy swell taking us closer to urban Port Blair. I reflected on the short visit to my field sites, knowing that it could be a while before I got back again. I idealistically hoped that things would change in the Nicobar Islands and that life wouldn’t be lived on the grasslands forever. My ideal is the beach. Then my eye caught sight of a being below. Just a few yards away from the ship, a huge grey brown shape appeared on the surface, moving in an opposite direction alongside. I thought ‘shark’! but ….in a few seconds, I saw its flat tail and a rounded head that could belong to only one creature- a dugong! It drifted by without a care, being heaved by the swell of the sea and carried on a current past the ship’s wake. A few seconds more and it was gone. The early morning sun reflected off the sea’s surface obscuring any further view. This was it then! Hark the herald O angels! This was a beautiful and rare sight-and a total surprise. An obese but graceful animal that is rare to see was my sight of that morning. I smiled to myself; In the Andaman’s, as in other areas, dugongs are called ‘sea pigs’…nothing close to the notion of being mermaids of the sea, but certainly a lot better than those pigs on the wing. In retrospect those pigs on the wing were the reason I got to see the fat mermaid at the gates of dawn-yet another sight to remember!
The combination of ideas in this account may seem strange (the account is true by the way), but when I wrote them out, I realized that I happen to have a fancy for ‘living in the past’, and have lamented on the changes in lifestyle among the Nicobar Islanders. I do not turn back from that lament, but look forward to the surprises that lie ahead. Through my field research I have come across many instances of resilience among many friends and others islanders I meet. As every turn along the beach can turn up surprises, I do acknowledge that social and ecological processes do take unexpected turns-sometimes churning up beautiful versions of change.