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The Lost Rihla

August 31, 2011

Warning: Long post!

It was 6 PM and Major Riyas Mohammed was in his office, with a big pile of papers in front of him and he hated every minute of it. It was peak summer in Mumbai and the climate did little to alleviate the feeling of extreme suffocation and the dusty ceiling fan on top was just an ornamental piece in his miniscule room.

It had just been over a month since his exploits in Kerala, where he had solved a major case involving the naxalites for which he had received a Medal of Honor, all done in secrecy. Yet another medal, which he could not show the world!

Yes, this was his world; the shadowy world of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) where victories were often celebrated in mute secrecy and failures, signaled to the whole world by the 24 gun salute.

Dead men never did talk!

As he looked at the huge pile of papers which he had to process before the end of the day, a sigh escaped his wiry frame. RAW operated this “office”, under the cover of an export business and hence, the facilities available were barely adequate.

No, no, no! I am not meant for this,” he swore out loudly and cursed his boss who had decided to give him a desk job for sometime, away from the action. The many cups of tea and his cigarettes did not help in alleviating the crushing disappointment that his life had become.

Just then, his phone rang. It was his boss, Mr. Sameer Sharma on the other line.

Riyas, come into my office,” said the curt voice and the line went dead. His boss was not a man who engaged in friendly chit chat. As Riyas walked to his boss’s office, he felt a familiar tinge in his spine. His intuition said that it was his next assignment.

As soon as he entered, his boss motioned him to sit down and asked, “What do you know about Ibn Battuta?

Riyas smiled at his boss. Was this going to be the start of another crazy adventure like the last one, where he had uncovered a Roman ruin in the middle of Kerala? Why did stuff like this keep happening to him?

Well, he was the greatest traveler of the ancient world. He was a North African who travelled all over Asia, including our country,” he replied.

What do you know about his voyages in India?”

Not much,” replied Riyas.

The dude travelled all over the Indian subcontinent. He initially started from the north of the Indian subcontinent, travelled to the south and from there to the Maldives. And from there, he travelled to Bengal and from there, on to Indonesia. From South East Asia, the dude later travelled to China and finally went back home and it was there that he finally wrote his epic book called the ‘Rihla’.”

Sameer leaned into the table and in a more sober tone continued, “That is common history; now onto a myth. As the story goes, on his travel from Chittagong to Indonesia, he set sail with three ships full of treasures. But on the journey, they ran into some rough weather and two of the ships were separated. His ship somehow managed to reach Indonesia but the other two ships were never spotted after that and were presumed to have been lost at sea.” 

Ok,” replied Riyas.

Now tell me,” said Sameer. “What do you know about the North Sentinel Island?”

Well, I know this one,” replied Riyas. “It is a small island in the Bay of Bengal, which is home to Sentinelese; the last remaining un-contacted tribe in the Indian Republic who have rejected and often attacked anyone who has tried to contact them. It is our policy is to leave them alone and let them live in the way they have been living for the last 50,000 years. They are the descendents of the first great migrants out of Africa.”

Throwing his hands up, he also added, “But what I don’t understand is why you are giving me GK lessons at six in the evening? Why don’t you just cut to the chase?”

Clearing his throat, Sameer replied, “As you know, we make it our business to track and obtain intelligence about the various drug cartels operating in and around South East Asia, especially within Burma which has been without a proper functioning democracy for many years now. Once in a while, they use many of uninhabited islands which belong to the Indian Republic as a base for their operations. One of the stories that we picked up recently was that a band of smugglers, due to some unforeseen circumstances were forced to dock at the North Sentinel Island for a few hours. As the story goes, the Sentinelese tried to attack them but the smugglers were able to hold them off.”

The story gets hazy here but one of the smugglers saw something interesting there and was able to steal it from a native. Once they got back to Burma, they realized that it was pure Gold and had many archaic Arabic inscriptions on it describing the tales of Ibn Battuta written in his own words; worth a ton on the black market. It now seems likely that the man had written his own records even before reaching Africa. Our intelligence agents picked this story up when they had gone to a collector. Our intelligence reports further suggests that the smugglers are planning a specific expedition to the North Sentinel Island soon. But this time around, they are going in with heavy firepower. And we need to stop them before they wreck the island.”

Can’t we just send in our destroyer and our MARCOS (marine commandoes) to deal with this?” asked Riyas.

Unfortunately we cannot. The last thing we want to do is to draw attention to the Island and encourage more mercenaries to search the island and the human rights commission will never accept our plea to search the North Sentinel Island. The island is sacred to the Sentinelese and off limits to everyone. Moreover, it will also be a diplomatic disaster with the Burmese.” 

So what do we do then?” asked Riyas.

This is where you come in,” replied Sameer. “We will airdrop you into the island under the cover of night and your mission is to find out if there is really any lost treasure within the island, and protected by the Sentinelese. You have to really find out if there is any truth to that ancient myth. I need the best man for such a sensitive job; one who can blend into the night without being spotted.”

“So when do you want me to leave?” asked Riyas.

“Right now,” replied Sameer. “And one important thing, you are under order to not hurt or maim the Sentinelese.”

Sounds sweet,” replied Riyas; “So you want me to go to a remote island; find the hidden treasure if any; be a moving target to the natives and expect me to report back to this office by tomorrow?”

Sameer signaled that the meeting was over and handed him a dossier. “Just come back alive! A car is waiting outside as we speak. You will be flown to our Air Force base in Chennai and from there to the Island. You will find all the details of the mission in this file. And in Chennai, you will find all your equipment.”

On the flight to Chennai, he went over the file and learnt about the basic topography of the island, the coral reefs and studied more about the natives, including their weapons. As he read more about the Sentinelese, he found it fascinating that they were still living in the Stone Age.

At 8 PM, the plane landed at the Air Force base in Chennai and Squadron Leader Vetrivel, an impressive Kargil War veteran with an equally impressive moustache was waiting for him on the tarmac.

I have read the report and the sensitive details of the mission,” Squadron Leader Vetrivel said as soon as they were in his office. Riyas liked him immediately. Just like Squadron Leader Vetrilvel, he was also a man who did not like wasting time in stupid chitchat.

We will rendezvous with the INS Trishul, our Naval destroyer about 10 miles away from the Island, which is out patrolling that area and you will have one of the ultra stealth, modern jet skies, which we can borrow from the navy. There is a risk of someone spotting you from the beach but we don’t have any other option. The Sentinelese settlements are on the northern side of the island and hence, we will drop you on the South. As soon as you are done, just activate the homing beacon and we will find you. You will also find all the non-fatal firearms that you will need out here.”

Riyas spent the next fifteen minutes getting ready for the mission. As he looked into the mirror in the locker room, as he was applying a special black paste all over his face, he could not but help notice his light green eyes and his tousled brown hair speckled with shades of grey. He was 35 but he knew that he could never settle for a desk job. It was not in his character; his self destructive streak! The combat fatigues that he wore now were a part of him, like the great Karna’s Kavacha.

Squadron Leader Vetrivel had personally volunteered to drop him and pretty soon, they were in the air, flying out to the Andaman Islands in a helicopter.

At about 10 PM, they landed safety on the helipad of INS Trishul. It was really dark and the water was warm and still. Riyas started riding out to the island without wasting time. Using GPS co-ordinates, he was able to make his way to theIsland, past the protective coral reef cover and docked at the beach.

He knew that the island was a tropical paradise but ironically this was going to be the most difficult mission in his life. He could not risk being discovered and he did not wish to stay till day break. The palpable tension was something that he lived on and so cautiously, he blended into the surrounding thick foliage after hiding the ski. 

The island had a total area of about 72 square kilometers and he had to trek for about 5 to 6 kilometers to reach the main settlement. Absolutely nothing was known about the Sentinelese or their customs.

As he made his way cautiously through the woods, all he had was a single question. “Would they have guards on duty at night?”

He knew that he would find out soon enough! Inching forward like a snail, he knew that he had to bring all his experience to succeed in this mission. His eyesight had gradually adjusted to the lack of light but he knew that the Sentinelese would have sharper senses, trained thanks to years of living in the wilderness. The loose sand and the thick bush cover made it even more difficult for him to walk through without making noise.

Finally, at 3:12 AM, he reached the main settlement of the natives, a huge clearing in the middle of the woods. A big bonfire was burning in the middle of the settlement which had about 30 to 40 huts in total, which were spaced generously and there were 7 men around the fire. All the wooden huts were evenly distributed and mostly of the same size.

Looks like it is their job to keep the fire burning,” Riyas thought to himself and he found it strange that the men, just sat there in silence without talking. Even though, he had seen videos of them before, nothing prepared him for this. They looked so different!

He spent a good 15 minutes in reconnaissance to ensure that there were no other guards on duty. The progress on the mission was excruciatingly slow, but he did not have any other choice. The last thing that he wanted to do was to let the natives know that they had an intruder amidst them!

Just as he finished his reconnaissance around the settlement, he noticed a hut on the northern side which was constructed differently. It did not have the same square pattern as the other huts and it was significantly bigger than the others.

Could this be their temple?” he wondered and decided to investigate. He took out his gun, which had been fitted with a special magazine and crawled to the hut, hidden from the view of the men around the bonfire.

Once he reached the hut, he slipped in through the open door and he saw the most amazing sight!

It was the decrepit remains of a huge ship broken into many pieces; the total length of which was about 30 feet! A small fire was burning in a corner which illuminated the whole ship giving it a golden hue and in front of it, was a huge stone carving, presumably a God. After looking around to ensure that there was no one else but him in the hut, he tiptoed to the ship and was amazed at what he saw.

Huge wooden boxes filled with solid Gold bars!

Man, we have hit the jackpot,” he thought to himself and the Arabic inscriptions on the gold bars were mesmerizing to look at, as it almost seemed to dance in front of his eyes thanks to the flickering flame! It really was the lost Rihla; an account of Ibn Battuta’s travels in his own words!

His mission was complete! All he had to do was to get back alive and so carefully, he slipped out of the hut and retraced his steps.

The journey back to the beach also took a long time, after which he activated the homing beacon.

In a minute or two, he could hear the chopper and so he walked over to the open beach. And in sometime, he could make out the chopper as it approached him.

Suddenly, his instincts told him to duck down, which he did and an arrow screamed past his torso. Yet again, he was saved by his instincts. He rolled over and looked back! The seven men were standing about 20 yards away!

Shit, they followed me all the way back here and I did not even know about it! They are good!” he said under his breath.

After the briefest interval, the seven men charged shouting out aloud, all armed with a knife.

He blocked; he rolled; he ran; he disarmed them; he grappled with them; he did everything in his capacity to not harm the men. He knew that he only had to hold them off for a few more moments and suddenly, a huge flash light beamed down upon them from the helicopter.

The men froze in their tracks, clearly confused and that all he needed. He ran towards the chopper and grabbed the ladder. And in a couple of seconds, he was airborne again, away from the island and from the Sentinelese!

He climbed into the chopper, helped by the MARCOS and it was a short flight back to the destroyer.

He could not believe that he had made it out alive! It was almost dawn and so, lighting a cigarette, he stepped out onto the deck.

What is our government response going to be to the hidden treasure?” Squadron Leader Vetrivel asked him.

I just hope we do everything to protect the people; from the smugglers and more importantly, from us as well. I hope that we do not take ‘civilization’ to them! They have done remarkably well for the last 50,000 years without it.”

He then placed a scrambled call to his boss to make his report. As soon as he was done, he spent the next quarter of an hour watching the Sun rise, marking the beginning of another brilliant day.

But would it be just another day for the Sentinelese?” was the burning question in his mind.

PS:

1) This is a work of fiction and the second story which involves Major Riyas Mohammed. You can read the first one: “The Roman Hoard”.

2) The Sentinelese are the last remaining “un-contacted” tribe in the Indian Republic and they live in the remote “North Sentinel Island”. I just hope that we don’t interfere with their natural habitat or their lives. Check this video out.

3) Ibn Battuta was the greatest traveler of the ancient world before the invention of the Steam engine. He travelled for many years and visited many places but there are no records of him having composed his “Rihla” before going back home.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rajani Ram permalink
    September 22, 2011 6:47 pm

    Very nice stories… I liked such mystery .. keep writing… all the best to you…. I wasn’t sure if Ibu Battuta was a real name or not.. recently heard it in a song :-)… so was thinking u just made it up or something… but I was wrong.. and more info too – like the Sentinelese – With a short story I get some more knowledge too…. cool!! 🙂
    OG: yeah, the dude makes an appearance in a hindi song from Ishqiya. I like history, so try to include it in what I write……… thanks for the comment!

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