The Guardian

“Aveerybody, an-board fast…or we drown!” He screamed dramatically in his funny accent putting a smile on everyone’s faces except mine, for I was always a touch irritated by him.

“C’mon.” My elder sister grabbed my hand and walked me into the luxury ferry boat as I stood dumbstruck on the steps, wearing a denim dungaree and cap, switching my head back and forth like a pendulum still admiring the sheer colossal architectural marvels; the Taj Palace hotel and The Gate Way of India.

The Elephanta caves had been a place of heavy tourist attraction over the past decade, ever since it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the late 1980s.

I remember, at the dusk of the millennium gone by, my dad has decided to make this short trip to our ever nascent neighborhood a reality. Now, despite Bombay was just a four-hour drive from my place, for some inexorable reasons, the plan went on lingering to a tomorrow date, month after month, until the new millennium struck and jolted us with the worst.

In the aftermath of the strongest earthquake that our state and perhaps the country had witnessed, a few months later as ‘our world’ fell back in order, with luckily no causalities. Dad and his cousin pulled out their Maruti 800s, and we took off for a week of ‘Bombay Blues’. For clearly, the priorities had been redefined.

Our hands were full; days of fun and frolic at Essel World, Marine-drive and the Chaupati, to tasting innumerable lip smacking delicacies; we were living a dream. Few days later we finally arrived for our exotic stay at the Taj palace. Or should I rephrase; ‘looking’ at the Taj Palace, for the balcony of our lodge room gave a perfect view of it.  So we got up today morning with all the more energy and thrill, for the caves were beguiling us like a charmer with his flute. However, the elders had decided to give the trip a miss, for I guess the cumulative toll of days under the scorching sun had weighed them down. So, it was just us; the gang of juvenile jacks’ and jills’ with our ‘TB’ a.k.a. Tensai bhaiyya, as our leader cum guide cum protector.

“We will sail like Popai…wee…aary soon!” he announced looking at our dull faces, for we had been sitting in the ferry for over 2 quarters of an hour now. The half-jammed glass windows, the velvet-coated seats, the over-stuffed crowd inside and with the time pushing towards mid-day, the insides of the ‘luxury ferry’ was nothing that defined luxury. In fact, it felt like a first-hand experience of being inside a microwave oven!

“It’s all his fault!” I screamed to my sister pointing towards TB. No one paid heed to my outcry, for all my other cousins were busy interchanging their vigil by the only open windows which our seats had. Traces of fresh air were hard to find and at my size, barely 3 foot tall, all the more impossible.

With my age still to touch double digits, I was the youngest in the pack which comprised of 14 to 16 year olds’. Tenzai bhaiyya, our family driver cum factory worker cum chores guy cum everything else one could make him do, was easier to spot in our residence than actual family members. Since, three families stayed together in a cramped up modified and renovated little duplex chawl, my father had managed to give a small room too. However, the elders adored him. He was the apple of their eye. But for us the young ones, especially for me, he always rubbed up the wrong way.

After a wait of eternity, finally we took off. An hour later we had reached the destination. As we jumped from the ferry to the island, there was a small puddle of water on the way ahead with little stones projecting out as mini-islands. As expected, the ever animated TB started screaming out instructions again.

“Leeesan, we jump and jump and jump, like monkeys. The monkey that falls in water, will be called ‘The Monkey!’”

We were already sick and tired, and soaked in sweat thanks to the ferry ride. And me being the smallest in the group, I was naturally the one to miss a stone.

“Little monkey, little monkey!” he screamed, as my face went red as a tomato.

“I don’t care, TB.” I yelled. Pretty strong words for a 9-year-old, “Return we are going in that open ferry.” I pointed out.

“No-no-no-no!” he replied as he came running to me, “Baba, it is not safe. The luxury one; the closed one is safe.”

“Safe, my foot!” replied one of my cousin who was the eldest of the lot, “We will die in there, if we board that hell-boat again.” All the others voted a ‘Yes’ voicing their opinion stronger.

With my socks soaked in the puddle mud, I stretched out my hand hoping TB would pick me up, but to my sheer shock he replied, “No, young prince, you walk out on your own. Then only you become tall and strong like me.” He preached and pointed towards his petite 5-foot frame and deflated biceps.

Eventually my sister helped me out. We spend the rest of the day exploring the caves, rode the toy train amidst the carved marvels, and spent quality time feeding the actual monkeys on the way back. Respecting our unanimous decision, TB took passes for the open ferry and with the rain Gods looking set to pour down, ride back under the crimson sky was looking promising already.

But, moments later all the delight drained to distress and we sat grinding our teeth, clutching on the railing rods, as nature had heard our cribbing and was in full mood to play. Even the boat captain and his crew failed to establish order. I particularly was freaked out as a tear started rolling down my cheek. Water rose from every-side and collectively ambushed our little boat. Just when all hope looked lost, I felt a hand grabbing me tight, “Don’t worry, baba, I am here to protect you.” TB said looking me in eye.

In the next few minutes, what unfolded was what one could call the true essence of order from chaos. TB took charge like the superhero in a film who had returned to save his city. He asked all the people to step in the center of the boat and sit forming a circular loop holding each other’s hands. He asked my sister to sit holding me in her lap with her hands covering my eyes the whole time. He went to the captain and helped him navigate the wheel, for it turned out he had a whole lot experience under his belt in driving; apparently on every terrain.

An hour and half later, fighting the angry sea, our boat co-lead by TB had survived this onslaught and reached the other side. There was only one catch; due to the extreme climatic conditions and some outrageous mismanagement, there were 4 boats lined up near the entrance one behind another, meaning ours was parked fifth in line!

It meant to get across one had to jump, from one edge to another, one boat to another, five times in total to call it a day. It was risky. A dare-devil adventure was upon us, one that none of us had signed up for. Rest of my cousins’ lot could manage. But I being the youngest and the smallest; short legs and lack of courage weren’t exactly the ammunition needed in one’s arsenal to complete the task.

TB took control yet again. He tied me around his waist like a monkey clinging onto his offspring and fastened on some ropes. He then took me across jumping one boat to another. Finally, as we made it ashore, he tossed me up high up on his shoulders, dancing to his delightful dexterity.

As the entire family gathered for a warm embrace with me right in its center, I saw TB standing in a corner slipping away with a smile. In that moment I knew, he wasn’t just our employee, never had been. Amidst us, in our little world; he was often a son, a brother to many and a protector 24*7… He was family! Always had been. I broke from my parents’ arms and ran to him as he lifted me up in a tight hug, tossed me on his shoulders again and came dancing back towards my family… towards our family.