Summer holidays were fun times. The wide open spaces beckoned. We were seldom indoors except when ill or punished. Father would take us on trips to interesting places in the country.
The year I was thirteen, Father said to me, “Ajit, would you like a holiday by the sea?”
“I’d love it Papa. But can Vikram come along too?”
Vikram was my cousin who went wherever we went so long as his parents had no other plans for him. Then there was my younger sister Lalli. We made a perfect trio. Lalli was a tomboy who could climb a tree or kick a ball as well as any other boy of her age. We were proud of her.
Kaup was a tiny fishing village on the west coast. Fifty years ago, it took us six hours to travel from Mangalore to Kaup. There were two ferries to cross before we reached there. Most of the people were poor fisher folk.
The light house was the main attraction. It stood majestically erect on a huge black rock that jutted into the sea. The light house keeper was a good friend of my father’s. He lived with two other families, in neat cottages by the sea. We were given the use of one of them.
It was a wonderful holiday. We would wake up when the first rooster crowed and run down to the beach, to watch the fishermen put out to sea. Some had boats and others had rafts. They piled their nets and baskets on them. With loin cloths hitched high, the men pushed the boats into the water, then jumped in one by one. We watched fascinated as their voices gradually faded and the boats moved away until they were mere specks on the horizon.
We soon became friendly with the light house staff and even some fishermen. The head keeper kept the light house door open and invited us to climb the winding steps to the top. Almost at the top but just below the beacon, was a narrow balcony all around. It was guarded by an iron railing. We often stood there watching the ships out at sea. The head keeper told us about brave sailors, and how the light house with its revolving beacon, had saved many a ship from being wrecked on those treacherous rocks. We were impressed by those stories and resolved to become sailors when we grew up.
Within a few days of our stay in Kaup, we had exhausted all the pleasures that the village could afford. It was time for a little adventure.
“Ajit, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could sail a boat by ourselves?” asked Vikram.
“That’s a brilliant idea. It looks easy enough. We have watched them sail every morning and I’m sure we can manage,” I answered. “But where will we get a boat?”
“There are many small boats moored on the beach. We could borrow one for a few hours and come back before anyone finds out.”
“That’s a silly idea,” Lalli said. She was afraid of the sea though she knew how to swim. “Father will be mad at us if we steal a boat. He may even cut short our holiday.”
“But how will he know? No one’s going to tell him unless you’re planning to sneak.”
“Come now Lalli. Don’t be such a spoilt sport,” Vikram persuaded. “But of course if you’re scared of the sea you can stay behind.”
“Nonsense! Who says I’m scared? I’m only worried about Papa being angry.”
“You needn’t worry. He’ll never know. We’ll be back in an hour. We’ll ask Mother to give us an early breakfast and we’ll come back for lunch,” I assured her.
The boats were usually lined up on the beach when the men came back from the sea every evening. We decided on a small black boat which seemed easy to handle. It had a single sail and two oars rested in the bow.
“She’ll do fine,” said Vikram, “This is my choice.”
“And mine too,” I agreed.
For the next two days, we watched the fishermen carefully paying attention to how they launched their boats. Lalli however was very quiet. Though she pretended that it was going to be fun, I could sense that she was frightened. She pecked at her food. At night, she tossed about in bed. But she was determined to come along.
Thursday arrived at last. It was a lovely morning. The sum seemed unusually bright even at this early hour. We could smell adventure in the air. We told Mother we were having a picnic in a grove close by. So she packed us some goodies to munch.
We ran down to the water’s edge. There was not a soul in sight. We slid the boat into the water easily and let Lalli jump in. The waves pushed the boat back to shore. But young as we were we didn’t lack strength and managed to push the boat beyond the breaking waves. Then like seasoned sailors, we both jumped in and paddled as best we could.
But our struggles were not yet over.
“Let’s unfurl the sail,” Vikram said. But there was hardly any wind.
“We must use the oars,” I said, and moved to the bow.
Vikram who was at the stern, moved forward. We paddled with all our might. At last the wind turned in our favour and the boat glided smoothly over the water.
We could see the fishermen gathered on the shore ready to sail.
“I’d like to see the guy’s face when he finds his boat missing,” Vikram said.
“He wouldn’t dream it was us,” I assured him.
“There is a code of behaviour among fishermen. They never steal each other’s boats,” said Lalli.
“When they find out about us they will inform the police.”
“Oh shut up,” I said, “We should have left you at home. You’re such a sissy.”
“Let’s go back. We’ve come quite some distance and it was fun,” Lalli begged.
We didn’t listen to her. Bending over the edge, we dipped our hands in the cool water and wet our faces. We thought of all the praises we would receive when we told our friends at school about our adventure. But Lalli stared back at the light house afraid that it would disappear from sight the moment she took her eyes off it.
She opened the bundle of eats and passed them around. We took a swig from the bottle of lemonade.
“Now we must really turn around,” Lalli insisted. “If we aren’t home for lunch we’ll have some explaining to do.”
But we didn’t know how to turn the boat. We moved from bow to stern and tried the oars but the boat stubbornly refused to turn. The direction of the wind changed and drove the boat sideways.
“At least we are not sailing away into the deep,” consoled Vikram.
“We’re moving a long way from the light house,” Lalli sobbed.
Tears glistened in her eyes but we were not in a mood to pamper her.
The boat was simply beyond our control. It drifted in the opposite direction from where we wanted to go.
“Let’s give up struggling,” Vikram suggested, “It will come to a halt when the wind ceases. The only thing is not to lose courage.”
He looked at Lalli. She had turned pale as a sheet.
“This is quite a feat. I don’t think anyone in our age group has attempted sailing a boat in the sea.”
Vikram was fifteen. He was the oldest of the three. I was thirteen and Lalli was only ten.
The sun was rapidly sinking in the west. We watched panic-stricken as the red gold orb vanished into the horizon. There were patches of dark cloud in the north. They were beginning to merge with each other into a dark canopy. Only a few days earlier, the lighthouse keeper had said that it was time for pre-monsoon showers. The same fearsome thoughts were in all our minds. What if we were caught in a thunderstorm?
Lalli held her peace for as long as she could. Then she burst out, “If ever I reach home, I’ll never disobey Mother and Papa. I don’t want to be a tomboy. I’d rather be a good little girl.”
She moved close to me and buried her head in my sleeve. I put my arms around her and consoled her as best as I could.
“God helps the helpless. It’s no use crying. We should be praying instead.”
It soon began to drizzle and then to pour. Sheets of rain driven by an angry wind drenched us to the skin. The boat was caught in an eddy and round and round it went. We clung to each other, cold and shivering in the rain. At last, Vikram broke the silence.
“We are moving towards the shore –Look!”
“Thank God,” I said.
But all at once the boat shuddered and came to a sudden stop with such force that we were thrown to the floor of the boat.
“A rock!” shouted Vikram, “We have struck rock.”
“Let’s abandon the boat and swim ashore,” I said, “It’s not too far. I’ll be happier with dry land under me.”
We could all swim well but at this time, Lalli had lost confidence in herself and in us too.
“We’ll help you, Lalli dear, Vikram said, “I promise you I won’t let you down.”
So we jumped in the water. It was already dusk and we swam slowly so that Lalli could keep up with us. The silence was scary. At one moment, Vikram turned to see Lalli’s head bobbing up and down in the water. She was losing her strength. He swiftly swam to her side and caught her by the body.
“Ajit, come and help me. I can’t manage alone.”
He took hold of one arm and I of another and we dragged her along. It was sheer fright that pushed us forward.