“Bit by pit…life goes on”

After applying some strong smelling balm around my entire foot he proceeded to heat a surgical blade. I closed my eyes and lay on the ground. And I screamed. A shout of panic-fear escaped my open mouth, and then another. I bit down on my tongue. The old man had made two slits below the snake bite. Every time I whimpered or screamed he held my eyes with his, willing me to endure and succeed. I was sweating profusely. He nursed me with tenderness and constancy. At one moment, I screamed as loudly as I could and then allowed the feeling of true hysteria to settle in. I could hear laughter, but a strange numbness had started to take control of me. I didn’t care. Blood oozed out of my foot like an erupting volcano. The old man dipped his finger into the blood and showed me the dark colour of the venomous blood. One of them held my foot tighter and literally bit my toe to suck and spit out the blood from the freshly cut wound. I yelled in agony ordering Yoayela to tell this Burmese cannibal to go easy on my toe. But the man continued till the dark colour transformed into a deep red. And when he finally stopped, the old man took over, re-lit the cigar and burned the area around the snake bite muttering some chants that I could not understand. All the others stayed still and serious as a mark of respect. I lay completely still, and did not react at all. I listened intently to him; my questioning eyes were fixed on his face, as he went on. After the chant was over, the old man told me to repeat a few words of the chants, I said those words and once again everybody laughed, I guessed because of my pronunciation.

Steep cliffs of the eastern coast of Tillanchong

We were camping on an uninhabited island called Tillangchong. The island has always remained a mystery even to researchers as getting access is very difficult. That’s why we chose to come here.

The island has about 5 bays, and in each of these bays extends a reef, and these reefs surface in low tide as they start from the low tide line at a depth of less than one meter and extend all the way into deep waters as deep as 25 meters. The island is about 100 km away from Camorta, in Central Nicobar. The narrow stretch of island has a mountainous terrain, and dense forest estimated at about 80-85 percent forest cover. My aim, in the visit to this island, was to evaluate the biological efficacy of the traditional management systems that exists in and around this island.

For several years, the coastal land of this island has yielded coconut plantations which are traditionally harvested by the villagers of Kakana district in Camorta and Trinket Island in the month of March. During the rest of the year the only other inhabitants are Thai or Burmese poachers, reputed to roam with sophisticated weapons and steal from people or kill on sight. Rumours float around that they are powerfully built and in their own country they are often thieves, murderers, major mafia figures and even former warlords. We have always been warned to be extra cautious while working on this island.

We had arrived four days ago on an expedition to survey corals and sea grass. We reached the island during the early hours of the morning, cleared the camp site, set the fire and put up the tent. That morning we walked along the beach and collected plenty of flotsam. In the afternoon we stretched out under the shade of large Pandanus trees along the shore when at a distance we sighted a dinghy headed straight for us. “These are Burmese poachers,” Emanuel said based on the years of experience to this island, “And as far as I know they are here to poach sea cucumbers.  They won’t harm us and will try to befriend us.” The dinghy stopped 100 m from our camping site and we all ran into the woods. We watched them through the leaves and they watched us through their binoculars. We did not move, they waited and waved at us and after 15 minutes continued their boat ride.

The next day we set off to survey the east coast of the island. We had just moved around the first head rock when we sighted the same dinghy of the previous day. Elrika insisted that we turn back but after contemplating we decided to move on. As we neared, we saw five men busy fishing under the hot sun. Elrika being the only girl on the boat decided it best to go unnoticed. She hid inside the hatch. The poachers looked at us and waved, and we waved back. They were calling us towards their boat; we signalled that we would come later. That afternoon we surveyed the entire eastern coast and got back to our camp late in the evening. That night I did not sleep well and had strange dreams of being attacked. A couple of times I heard the sound of their dingy and hoped that that would not turn to reality.

A rocky outcrop at the southern tip of the island

On the third day we cast off to survey the west coast of the island, a vital part of the island with mountainous volcanic-like terrain and beautiful corals. We raced down the vast blue-green water and headed north of the island. The tropical sun was hot and I felt it burn my skin even through my shirt. Sea birds were dancing along the shore. The water was crystal clear and the sun’s reflection through the water made it even brighter. We were diving and following standard procedures of data collection. Our boat was anchored close to the shore and Emanuel, Euriel and Cain were waiting on the boat.

We finished our dive and as we surfaced, Emanuel screamed “look there are men on the shore”. We got onto the boat and looked carefully. Three men were walking on the nearby shore. Yoayela started the boat engine and we approached the shore. We anchored the dinghy 100m away. Elrika hid.

Near the den of the poacher’s camp; their dinghies almost camouflaged

As we neared, the men ran taking shelter in the coastal forest. We spotted many heads. “They are Burmese and this is their camp site” said Emanuel. We waited for 10 minutes and signalled them to come out. We scanned the shore and at one end we saw 2 camouflaged dinghies. We were curious and we decided to go closer. As we neared, six men appeared from the forest. We stopped the engine and anchored the boat. They waved at us and called us onto the shore. Yoayela, our Karen (a Burmese tribe) field assistant was confident of making conversation as he knew a few words of Burmese. So Emanuel and he jumped into the water and swam toward them while we watched from a distance. Emanuel and Yoayela reached, and the men encircled them. In a while, they were shaking hands and communicating. The Burmese took them to one side of the shore and they sat down in a circle on the sand.

By now curiosity was killing me. I wanted to get to the shore but Elrika stopped me. I had to take a decision. Where would I ever get such an opportunity to meet them again…but a bit of fear held me immobile – What if they kill me? It’s a reasonable risk, I knew. But I couldn’t resist the temptation. “Okay I’m going”, I told myself sternly. I took a packet of biscuits and swam to the shore – for a brief instant I felt heroic.

As I neared the beach, two men approached me with a broad smile; I shook hands with them and gave them the packet of biscuits.   The shorter man kept one hand at all times around his machete slung behind him across his shoulder. He looked at me through the top of his cold, killer eyes and hit his hand on his chest pronouncing loudly: “I am Burma.” In response I hit my hand on my chest and said “I am India”. A tattered T-shirt hung from his muscular shoulders, and a dirty round cap was perched on his angular face. “Tenha yistin yealak” said he and started walking (I got here only yesterday and it took us five days to reach this island). I nodded my face and walked with them. The people at a distance seemed suspicious of my presence. They thought I was from the Navy or Police. But as they saw me closely, they were convinced. So far, so good, I thought. We all shook hands and sat down.

Some of them were comprehensively, celestially and magnificently stoned. They looked at me closely, inquisitive and uninhibited. They tried my snorkelling gear and touched my T-shirt, my curly hair and the tuft of long hair hanging at the nape of my neck. There was nothing invasive about these moments, since they arose from pure and untainted inquisitiveness. One of them climbed a nearby coconut tree, plucked tender coconuts and cut open a few and offered them to us. We soon got involved in a conversation. I realised Yoayela was interacting fluently with one man. His name was Saw Athoo and he too knew the Karen language.  So Yoayela and Athoo played the role of respective translators. He then sought to explain about me to the others by recounting how good I was and that I had met other Karens and he also made up a story about me being adopted and brought up in the Nicobars.

Yoayela, asked them why they chose travelling such a great distance illegally into foreign waters over finding means to earn money back in their hometown. Saw Athoo explained, “Our paddy fields have been submerged due to cyclones and other calamities. Half of the produce from the remaining land has to be given to our government. We are therefore left with no option but to travel foreign waters as it fetches more money to support our families”. I could not help thinking of the differences in our existence. When his family needs he must depart on a tiring dangerous journey. At home, I pop down to the local supermarket and in minutes I can find almost anything I want, although I rarely contemplate the convenience of this luxury.

We spoke of religion, politics, climate, economics, culture, marine life and life in general between the two countries, Yoayela and Athoo translating. We spent almost 1 hour together. As we were ready to leave, the short man gave me a 25-liter jerry can with diesel and said “this is Burma gift.” I refused to accept the gift but he insisted that I take it. In return, I had nothing to offer except my sincerest thanks, once again we shook hands and we swam back to the boat. Back on the boat, Elrika and the others were waiting anxiously. I was bombarded with questions and I answered them all. This was a happy day for me. I had interacted and shared a bond of friendship with strangers who are notorious for their acts.

Friends or foes?

The next day we surveyed the eastern part of the island and the bay where we were camping. At around 4 in the evening I walked through the forest to the small pond to take a much needed cleaning, with Elrika following. I was walking fast in the forest to avoid the mosquitoes waiting to feast on me. All of a sudden, I felt something strike my toe. I continued to walk but just managed to take a few steps and felt a bit uneasy. I sat down to examine the prick on my toe. I thought the thorn of a Pandanus leaf had lodged into my skin. There was a sudden excruciating pain and I could see a drop of blood trickle down. I held my foot tight in agony. Elrika ran toward me with a stick and moved the beast that was all ready to strike again. A sudden fear gripped me; I realized that I was just bitten by a Pit Viper. Elrika calmed me down and suggested that we get back to the camp as quickly as possible. I limped my way back and though the distance was not more than 200m, the path seemed never ending. I reached my tent and slumped on the ground, exhausted.

My new fear

Elrika called out to everyone and told them about the incident. Within minutes Yeaoyela, Euriel, Cain and Emanuel arrived – and the pace of action accelerated. Emanuel looked worried but at the same time he was calm and composed. He ran into the forest and got some jungle medicines, while Yeayola ran to the boat and got the machete. Meanwhile I kept myself busy recounting the details of the incident. In five minutes Emanuel was back with a bunch of leaves. Slowly he squeezed the juice out of those leaves on my entire foot. By now the toe was turning blue and we realized the importance of a lesion in order to let out the venom. Emanuel ordered me to hold my foot and he set off to make a tiny cut with the machete. I was scared. Common sense screamed, “Allow them to make the slit,” but the pain triggered my instinct to react otherwise.  I held my fist tighter and pushed everybody away. Repeated attempts were made to convince me but I was reluctant. Finally I took the needle and pierced myself.  Few drop of blood oozed out. I wiped out the blood but the foot continued to turn blue.

I could see the fear in Elrika’s eyes that manifested into anger because of my stubbornness. “VARDHAN! DO YOU WANT TO LOSE YOUR LEG?” she had the shaft of her hand stretched across my shoulder blade, pushing her weight against mine to pin me down, “Gangrene, Vardhan, that’s what it’ll lead to if you don’t treat it now!” Yoayela turned to her about to say something. He turned back to me, then turned to her and popped the question: “Should we take him to the poacher’s camp? It’s only a half hour away by dinghi.” He reasoned that there would be experienced elders who would be in a position to help me out. I saw the reservation in my heart reflected in Elrika’s eyes. They were Burmese…and poachers. We knew there were 22 of them, of which we had earlier only met six – what if the leader decided to kill us; that they didn’t want us around. But the nearest island with medical facilities was six hours away by boat. It was unanimously decided that I should be taken to the Burmese camp. Emanuel carried me to the boat. Yoayela and Cain started the boat engine and once again we were set off to meet the poachers. It had already turned dark and the only sound I could hear was the thumping of the boat engine and my heart beats, loud and clear, anxious to reach the destination of hope. I was watching the stars and holding my foot tighter. The pain was getting unbearable. I was counting every minute. Though I knew, I quietly asked Emanuel “How long will we travel?”

Forty minutes later, we were at their camp site. We anchored close to the shore and waited for some time. A group of poachers came to greet us on the shore. On seeing Emanuel carry me across the sand they realised something was wrong. Yoayela, explained to them about the snake bite. They examined my toe and tied a tourniquet below my calf muscle. They offered their shoulders for support while I limped along a winding path through the coastal forest that seemed to have no end. All the way they calmed me down and assured me that I would be fine. Mosquitoes and sand flies were having a feast on my poisoned blood.

Through the twists and turns I saw the light of their camp growing stronger and brighter till I was sure we’d reached their den. It was an open space, a clearing of almost 250 square meters – quite a surprise after the narrow winding path. On the left stood a wooden platform on stilts, 2 men stood at the edge of the platform boiling sea cucumbers in metal drums below. Their faces were blazing with the burning fire that made them sweat profusely. One of them smiled at me and came closer while the other continued working. On the right were three large wooden structures on stilts. The walls of these structures were made of bamboo mats. I was soon encircled by men and everybody seemed concerned. They were all talking a language that was difficult to understand but soothing to the ears. I was so amazed at the site that for a moment I forgot about the pain. Not for long.

I was offered to sit on a nearby platform next to a leathery old man. He was smiling, a distinct vast smile that covered almost half his face, as if he had been frozen in the middle of a belly laugh. When he learned of my misfortune, his expression changed to a strange mix of pride and worry. The wrinkles seemed to steady his hands with experience…or was it really mine they were steadying?

He put his hand on my chest and told me to calm down. He offered me water, lit a cigar, and immediately set to work. He instructed the others to hold my foot on the ground while he burned the area around the snake bite with the lit cigar. Emanuel, who had experienced my strength of resistance an hour earlier pinned my back into immobility between his knees and his arms, while three Burmese poachers held my leg down. Watching it made every jab of his burning cigar against my sensitised skin even more painful.

And then he applied some strong smelling balm which set my nerves ablaze. The old man wasted not a minute to heat the surgical blade which would slit a portion of my toe open; at one point I allowed hysteria to take refuge within me. Another man bit me, to remove the venom, but why was he hurting me? I wanted them to stop; just make it stop. And it did. The man stopped. I could hear, I could see, I could smell beyond pain. The pain stopped.

The old man believed in touch as the ultimate means of communion between man and man. He put his hand on my chest and assured me that I would be alright within a week. There was a confidence on his face and his touch. That touch from a stranger had a healing power. Suddenly I felt better. Later I was offered green tea and an energy drink. I gulped it down quickly. I offered my sincerest thanks to everybody around for getting the venom out of my body. One of them knew a few words of English. He asked me inquisitively, “What is your name,” and I answered. I asked him the same and he said “Pochala.” Later he asked me, “When Navy come?” I answered “I don’t know,” and told them, “You should not stay here and move away from here as fast as you’ll can”.

In a while, a pile of rice topped up with gravy was placed on my hand. We had to have dinner before we left the place. I looked at the pile of rice and looked at my watch. We had already spent 2 hours at their base camp and my thoughts were of Elrika. She was alone at the camp and it had turned dark. What must she be thinking? Will she be worried for our safety? Will she find the torch? What will she do sitting alone for so long? What if a wild boar or the crocodile whose tracks were found close to our camp attacked her in the darkness? I had to go back fast. Without hesitation I ate the entire chunk of rice. The food was spicy and tasty. I particularly liked the gravy and the meat pieces. Later I was told that the delicious meat was of a reptile – a Water-Monitor Lizard.

A water-Monitor lizard at the poacher’s camp

Having done that, I stood and said a final good bye to everybody. The old man decided to stay on at the camp. I looked into the old man’s eye and offered my thanks. I don’t know if he understood my feelings, but I guess my body language said everything that I had to say. He patted me on the back and I shook hands with him. Emanuel and Athoo gave me their shoulders and I limped to the shore as the others focused the torch on the small jungle path. The night was bright. I looked towards the water. Moonlight shattered on the water, shedding streaks in the crystal clear water. I was carried to the boat. I said a last good bye to my new friends that I may never meet in my lifetime. I thanked them a million times and I thanked my stars. In the minutes before the dingy started and spluttered away from the shore the short man I met first – the one who kept one hand on his machete while he shook mine with his free hand – held my hand once more and lightly squeezed them as a bond of friendship. I waved goodbye and continued till I could see them no longer.

Back at the camp Elrika was sitting alone on the shore, waiting for me and the others. I told her about all that had happened and she listened intently as if I was telling her a fairy tale. She was happy that they had got the venom out. I was tired and fell asleep in no time. That night I tossed and turned in my tent deliriously wandering through a dream world, alternately sodden with sweat and then racked with the intense foot pain. The morning brought no relief. We packed our tent and our bags. I was once again carried to the boat. In minutes the dinghy started and we moved further away from the island. The sea appeared wide and sluggish; I lay asleep on the boat on a pile of bags, with the hot breeze hitting my face. The sun seared my eyes; flares of cerise and magenta were steaming out of the island. I looked across rile and ruffle of the bay, I tried to fit my feelings within a frame of thoughts and facts. I thought of something my mother had once told me, “There is a kind of luck that is not more than being in the right place at the right time, a kind of inspiration that is not more than doing the right thing in right way, and both only happen when you empty your heart of ambition, purpose, and plan; when you give yourself completely, to the golden, fate filled moment. I was never sure what she meant by “giving yourself to golden fate filled moment” but with this incident I understood what she meant. The entire experience shunned me and probably helped me to understand the dimension of humanity.

1 thought on ““Bit by pit…life goes on”

  1. Very nice read Vardhan. I was hesitant to read this initially as I thought it was bit too long for a blog but didn’t seem so once I started.

Comments are closed.