July 25, 2005

Front line

When the rollicking, rocketing bus from Vedaranyam comes to a halt, we see -- what else? -- a shrine to Tamil Nadu's late Chief Film Star. MGR. Portrait of the man, trademark sunglasses and all, festooned with black and white AIADMK party flags. The bus circles worshipfully around it before letting us off. Here we are after two days in buses, finally somewhere in Tamil Nadu where vast pictures of the Saviour of Social Justice Puratchi Thalaivi Dr Jayalalitha Jayaram do not add glamour to the surroundings -- here we are, only to be greeted by MGR.

But hardly disheartened, we walk along the beach towards a large lagoon. Flocks of small brown birds rise from the water's edge, startling us because we don't see them till they move. Dozens of tiny underbellies flash in the sun as they turn and twist in flight. In a clump of thorny bushes off to the right, a splash of colour. The splash is another bird, zooming about before he poses handsomely on the end of a branch: a jewel-green bee-eater. An egret stands motionless in the water, staring intently in and then jabbing with that deadly beak, only to come up empty. On a thatched roof sit four regal Brahmini kites, ignoring us imperiously.

And then there are the flamingos, a hundred yards away in the lagoon. Huge flocks winter here every year. Except this year, when there are precisely thirty-six. (Yes, we counted). Still, they are a sight, these little clumps of white balanced on long pink stilts. Some have their heads completely submerged, picking up unknown flamingo delicacies in their curious upside-down way. Some stand on one leg, the other either hidden away or held stiffly behind like a flipped "L". Others stride along with comical high-steps. Our binoculars give us fleeting glimpses of the delicate orange and pink feathers under their wings.

Turning from bird to bird, I am suddenly aware that in less than twenty minutes walk from the bus and MGR, we can no longer hear a single human sound. For that matter, we can't even see a single human apart from ourselves. A curiously happy thought.

Many egrets and bee-eaters later, we attempt a lagoon crossing. Abruptly, we sink to our knees in a black, oily slush. Luckily, we have removed our pants for the task. Not very dignified, but at least our clothes remain dry. When we finally stumble out of the slush, we look like we have fancy black stockings on. Shirt, undies, grimy black stockings. No, perhaps we do look dignified. Elegant, even.

And it's good we look elegant. Because on the jetty in front, beckoning sternly to us, stands a man with a machine gun. I don't make a habit of arguing with machine guns, so I walk over dutifully. The man and a buddy in a Maruti Gypsy are from the Navy. While he checks my entrance ticket to the sanctuary, I realize why they are here. Sri Lanka, that bellicose war-mongering great power, lies a few dozen miles away across the Palk Strait. Thank God for these men, protecting the country from the dire threat of invasion by Sri Lanka. These two men, their Gypsy and a machine gun. The absolute front line of our defences. I feel immediately safe.

"If you've come all the way from Bombay," the man says as he hands back my ticket, "couldn't you find any place in this whole country more interesting to visit than Point Calimere?"

Over his shoulder, I see the strange, tossing sea. The colourful local fishing fleet sits in the water, rocking and rolling like our Vedaranyam bus. Gulls are lined up on the shore, brown and white Brahmini kites wheel overhead. I remember MGR. I look back at Machine Gun Man and his buddy and think again of Sri Lanka.

I have my answer. It may not be the one he expects.

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