Stories of crocs in Andamans and survival at sea

Last Updated: Tue, Aug 20, 2013 17:32 hrs

Title: Adrift: A True Story Of Survival At Sea

Author: V Sudarshan

Publisher: Hachette India

Price: Rs. 399

Pages: 127

Apart from references to the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party, a quick Google search for ‘Commander Baath’ throws up a rather innocuous page for 'Infinity Scuba Andamans'.

It’s billed as ‘the only dive center to be located at Chidiya Tapu… an island at the southernmost tip of South Andamans,  25 km away from Port Blair', the capital of the island group in the Bay of Bengal.

‘Infinity Scuba Andamans,’ it says, ‘is owned by the legendary Commander Baath of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. An ex naval diver and commander in the Indian Navy, he has dived and explored the majority of the islands, in fact he is one of the pioneers to have explored the Andaman & Nicobar Islands through scuba diving. With numerous adventures under his belt (ask him about it) he now wants to share his love and enthusiasm for scuba diving with everyone.’

Among those ‘numerous adventures under his belt,’ one that happened about dozen years ago probably tops the list.  

The reason I was searching for Commander Baath was that I’d just finished reading Adrift: A True Story of Survival at Sea, by V Sudarshan, the executive editor of The New Indian Express, and an old friend of mine.

And his story revolves around how Commander Baath and five others, including a French couple, spent a week adrift on the high seas --- miles from nowhere, lost, hungry and desolate ---  and survived.  

In his introduction, Sudarshan explains how he has a deep connection with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, having spent a part of his childhood there ‘trying not to grow up.’

The story begins with a young foreigner and her companion out snorkelling off a beach on Havelock Island, northeast of Port Blair.

Barely a few metres out from the beach, a giant crocodile suddenly grabs the woman as her partner watches helplessly. He throws his camera at the monster, but it is flicked away by the crocodile’s thrashing tail. By the time he returns to the beach, there is no sign of the woman or the crocodile.

Since there has never been a crocodile attack in the area before, the police view his story with scepticism, and they impound his passport pending further investigations. What saves him is footage of the attack from the underwater camera, which is found snagged on a rock two days later.

An alert is sounded, and the crocodile is sighted several times, off the cove. Four days later, the woman’s badly mutilated and decomposed corpse is found by a fisherman at the mouth of a nearby estuary. And days after that, a massive 14-foot crocodile is finally captured, using a dog’s carcass as a bait. But nobody knows whether it was the one that attacked the woman. The croc is sent to the Port Blair zoo, and the woman’s companion leaves the island.   

In mid-2000, Commander Avtar Singh Baath decides that 20 years in the Indian Navy was enough, resigns his commission, and settles down in Port Blair with his wife Mona, who’s a former airhostess, and their two children. After some months doing nothing but fishing with his friend, Captain Ashwini Kumar from the Naval HQ at Port Blair, Baath buys a second hand boat, some engines, and starts a scuba diving centre.

Among his first clients is a French couple, Bruno Beauregard and Camille Pascal. So on a balmy March morning, Baath, Bruno, Camille, two crewmen, Rama Rao Sr and Rama Rao Jr, and Himanshu, a friend's son, set off for Sir Hugh Rose Island.

(If you want to know where that is, look at the maps drawn by Sudarshan’s young daughter, Rudraa, who’s also sketched the small illustrations that adorn the top of each chapter)

That’s when they spot the whales, and despite the inclement weather, decide to chase and film them at the French couple’s request. The weather turns worse, and Baath decides to head homeward through the rain. After a while, Bruno insists that according to his compass, they are going the wrong way. Baath, against his better judgment, turns the boat around.

By the time they discover that his compass is wrong, it is too late.

On a vast expanse of ocean infested with sharks, water snakes and pirates, they run out of fuel, water, food and hope. And then they hit a storm.     

How they survive for almost a week before they are finally found and rescued is only part of Sudarshan’s gripping story. Suffice to say that Commander Baath’s attitude, and perhaps his naval background and training, turns him into a reluctant hero, an unwilling leader hoping to herd his flock to safety.   

The other, equally interesting part is the fascinating sketches of the main players, woven seamlessly into the circular narrative.

These ‘back stories’, as Sudarshan modestly admits in an interview, ‘are interesting and bring out the characters very well.’

Written entirely in the present tense, the crisp, understated prose actually heightens the drama, and adds a certain timelessness to this story of survival at sea, of man’s indomitable spirit, and nature’s beautiful disdain.   
Read it. Because even Commander Baath himself probably could not have told it better.

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