It was the village of sea camels. There were thousands of camels by the sea. They go to sea for grazing. They eat mangroves, said Tejabhai.
I don’t know why there of us—Pramod, Mahesh and I, had gone to that village. Mahesh somehow managed a bedroom on a terrace, the only pucca house in the village. From there, it was a breathtaking view of the camels. The sea was nowhere in sight. It is there beyond the mangroves, said Tejabhai pointing to the thin line of vegetation on the horizon.
Next day, early morning, Mahesh woke me up. He was looking fresh as he had shaved and taken bath. He was wearing coffee color trousers and white full sleevs. He had put on shoes as well. He ordered me to take out pen and woke up Pramod for a piece of paper. “Take down the dictation,” was his next order. I was still dosing but followed it as I sensed the determination and command in his voice.
He gave all the details of his property in Hyderabad with precise instructions. It sounds like a will, I said. He replied with a faint smile on his face. His bed was too tidy as if he had prepared it a few minutes back. He lay on the bed, legs stretched. Goodbye! I am going to die now, he said and died.
Hundreds of camels were returning from the sea. The male folks in the village with tiny milk cans were hunting female camels. I was amazed to discover that everyone managed to find his animals and started milking them. There were no shouts, no fights. “You can milk camel anytime,” said Tejabhai caressing the docile animal. Indeed, the creature was kind-hearted as it was allowing to milk while feeding its offspring from the other udder.
I left for my friend’s place. He was a scientist working with a research institute located along the sea coast. More than him, I was fond of his wife. She was my dearest friend as was their son. It took me hell lot of time to find his place. He had built his home on a rocky stretch and there was no proper approach road. I had to leave the auto quite far and walked through the rocks and sand. There was not a single tree for shade and it was painful to watch azure sea under the criminally hot sun. Neither was there any other house in sight.
I was completely exhausted due heat and weight of the huge suitcase that I was carrying. I reached the home only to find it locked. I waited and waited under the incredibly hot sun. The structure was designed in such a way that nobody would get shade outside the house. For hours together I was there consuming all the cigarettes I had with me. Finally, when I was about to collapse I dragged myself to the deserted road. I was lucky to find an auto there. Before hopping into that rickety vehicle, I glanced at the house by the sea and cursed my friend’s wife. You too will wilt under the sun waiting for me, I said. The driver took me to the hospital instead of a hotel where I was kept on the ice bed for I had suffered from the sunstroke.
In the evening, the scientist’s family arrived. His wife figured out from the cigarette buts strewn outside the house that I was waiting there for a long time. She told the husband that she would not enter home until I arrive. He sympathized for her and said O.K. He and the son, slept in the home leaving her outside. For days together she was there and day by day she was drying up. The scientist and the son did not notice it until she became as thin as leaf. She had already fallen on earth and the wind kept her rolling. The scientist was amazed. He placed her in different spots just for observations. Some weeks later he abandoned this project and took her in the home. She was put on the enormous table in the dining room underneath a glass paperweight so that the wind would not blow her away.
I found myself in an airy bedroom that was lighted by the stars in deep blue sky. The blue bedspread had violet flowers with white border. Under the golden yellow quilt on which red flowers were painted, she hugged and kissed me intensely.
I woke up completely. The room was filled with constant buzzing of ceiling fan and smell of mosquito repellent. In the crammed room, my wife, son and in-laws were in deep sleep. I came out of the flat, went down the stairs, passed the approach road and reached the playground. It was empty. The odor of the wet grass and the pungent smell of cow dung and other waste was floating in the air. My body shivered as the cool breeze touched the body through the linen. I lighted a cigarette with a pretext to shoo away mosquitoes and sat until the daybreak and the mobile phone buzzed.
It was John. He told Kutch was being hit by the cyclone and described it as the calamity of the century. “You should reach there by morning and do anything but the story and pictures should reach me by evening,” he ordered.
I called up the airline office and by dawn I was flying to Kutch with the credit card, laptop, camera equipment and small baggage. I hired a vehicle at the airport and set out to shoot.
The killer cyclone had devastated the coastal part of the district. The death toll was yet to be known but was estimated to the tune of 20,000. Most of them were salt pan workers and port labourers. The sea had thrown huge ships and ocean liners on the bank. The survivors were so stunned by the calamity that they could hardly speak. I came across a man who saw his entire family disappeared in the choppy sea but could not do anything even a scream, to help them. He was admitted in a civil hospital but died of heart attack by afternoon. He was looking like a living dead in the snap.
It was a bumpy drive to the lesser known port as the road was swept by the sea. On right side of the road was the sea and salt pans were on the left. I was startled to find that the railroad linking the port with the mainland which was running parallel to the motor road suddenly disappeared. It was thrown to the other side by the stormy sea. Some mounds of snow white salt had survived the storm. Dead camels, dead crows, dead bullocks, dead donkeys, dead dogs and dead flamingos were strewn across the road and in the salt pans.
I shot four films but there were no labs and I have to buy chemicals from the shop to develop black and white films in the portable kit that I had brought along with the camera. I scanned them and transmitted the pictures and the story to the office, thanks to the government office that had a generator and STD line. I was relieved when John confirmed that the story and pictures landed in the system and I did not miss the deadline.
Most of the hotels rooms in the city were booked by the government for the staff of different departments that was arriving for relief work. There was no electricity and the rooms on the fifth of sixth floor were available. I had not eaten anything since morning and was wondering where to find a room to relax. There I came across an energetic NGO worker. “Here you will not find a place for a night as the district collector has booked all the hotels for government staff,” he said and suggested spending a night in a nearby village.
We motored for about an hour and reached the sea. I was exhausted by continuous touring and working under the hot sun in humid weather. It was so dark that I could barely see the straw huts. In a day’s hard work, they had fixed the roofs swept away by the “Chakravat”, the NGO worker told me. I was feeling sleepy and notice curious faces of villagers around me. One of them offered me a glass of milk. “It’s camel milk,” he said. I looked straight into his eyes. He was about to speak something but I stopped him as a shiver ran through my spine. I said to him in Hindi, “Tejabhai, I know this is the village of sea camels.” That much I could barely speak and fainted for I did not have the courage to face the dream that was coming true.