Camille is sleeping on the plank that runs along the port side of the dinghy. A wet Bay Island Hotel towel covers her torso up to her neck. It is spread lengthwise over her. Her legs below the calves lie exposed. Bruno is lying on the plank opposite. Himanshu is on the floor between the two. Baath is sitting on the plank, unable to sleep. He looks up at the dark sky. It shows no sign of clearing. The thick clouds hang low. Rama Rao Sr is at the tiller. Rama Rao Jr sleeps with the tarpaulin pulled over him. It is raining intermittently.

Baath lies down on the plank facing the sky. He is looking for breaks in the clouds to see if he can spot the moon. Once, between the patches of clouds, he briefly spies the moon. It is a half moon which slowly moves behind a cloud. It is directly above the dinghy now. He cannot make out if it is rising or setting.

Baath is uncomfortably wet. The wind blows cold over him. He sits up and reaches below the plank, takes out a spare t shirt he has brought along and wears it on top of the one he is already wearing, careful not to disturb Himanshu who is now curled up against the plank.

It is two thirty now and Rama Rao hands over the tiller to Rama Rao Jr and wakes Himanshu up and goes to sleep where Himanshu was sleeping. The latter takes a bailer and begins to bail. It is raining again, this time steadily.

Baath longs for a cigarette but his packet is drenched. Around five the sky begins to brighten on one side. Baath wakes RamaRao Sr. Fill the tank up with the jerry can fuel, he instructs. Rama Rao Jr empties the diesel in the jerry can into the tank.

Anchor uthalo, Baath instructs further. Raise the anchor. Start both the engines. Keep going west and keep the sun behind you.

Baath thinks that even if they have drifted south due west they would still reach some island or the other. If they were already south of Port Blair, there was Rutland further south, then Cinq Island, then North Brother, South Brother, and Little Andaman. There was a string of land out there. It stretched seventy miles from Port Blair all the way to Little Andaman.

There is no sign of the sun yet, and through the clouds a weak, grey light suffuses the air. All around the sea looks like molten lead. Rama Rao Sr pulls in the anchor as Himanshu coils the anchor line. The thud of the anchor on the dinghy floor wakes Bruno. He gets up and looks around. He watches Rama Rao Sr start the engines and then he looks at the direction where the sun is rising behind the clouds.

Just check if the sun is rising in the correct direction, Baath tells Bruno. Bruno reaches for the regulator to check his compass. Camille has woken up too. She watches Bruno as he looks silently at the compass and shakes it and looks at it then shakes it again. He keeps quiet.

Should I ask Rama Rao to go by your compass again or should he go by the sun? Baath asks. Bruno ignores the taunt. Finally he says, My compass is wrong.

What? How can it be? This is the compass that you trusted? This is the compass that you swore was genuine.

Camille sits up and starts shouting at Bruno in French. He tries to placate her, reaching out to her. She slaps his hand away and turns the other way. Baath can see that she is furious.

Okay, let’s forget it, Baath says. We now know where the sun is. Let us go back home.

The dinghy ploughs its way through the waves. The sea is picking up. The waves are now two metres high and rising. The dinghy is pitching and rolling. The waves are coming in from the southwest and west. Even with both engines running the dinghy is hardly moving forward. It is as if it is suspended between the waves that lift it up and then set it down. The dinghy is going up, climbing the wave and then dipping down. It is making more headway sideways. Baath is worried about the fuel position. He has modified the tank to hold forty litres of diesel. In addition, the dinghy carried a jerry can of thirty litres. Each engine consumed three litres of fuel an hour. On a calm sea the dinghy could do about twelve knots with both engines running. It has run three hours to Neil, then another four hours after that.

How much diesel do we have left, Rama Rao? asks Baath.

Only ten litres left sir, replies Rama Rao Sr checking the fuel position.

Shut down one engine then, orders Baath.

The dinghy ploughs its way through the waves. The sea is picking up. The waves are now two metres high and rising. The dinghy is pitching and rolling. The waves are coming in from the southwest and west. Even with both engines running the dinghy is hardly moving forward.

Rama Rao shuts down one engine. With only one engine running the dinghy is practically at standstill. After a while Baath asks Rama Rao to start the other engine as well. The progress is agonizingly slow. Around eight twenty Himanshu who is sitting on the prow spots two bits of land in the far distance. Baath peers into the distance and says, The bigger one could be Rutland. It has the third highest peak in the Andamans.The other one is probably South Cinq.

Everybody is excited. Camille hugs Bruno. Himanshu shouts in joy.

Baath is happy. He reaches for his cigarettes. They are shapeless and wet so he throws them away. He asks Camille if she has a cigarette. She fishes her packet out but that is wet too. Baath’s lighter has stopped working. So has Camille’s. Rama Rao is the only other smoker on board. He smokes beedis. He fishes out a packet of beedis. There are only two left. Somehow he has managed to keep them dry.

If you don’t mind, Rama Rao says, we can share a beedi each.

Damn good! says Baath.

Rama Rao Sr takes a matchbox which is dry too and lights his beedi after a few attempts. He then cups the flame and tries to light Baath’s. The flame dies out. He strikes another match. This time the beedi lights up. Baath draws deeply on the beedi and lets the smoke out very slowly. They are all looking at the islands that draw nearer and nearer almost imperceptibly. Baath thinks they must be seven or eight miles away at the most. At the rate they were progressing, about a little more than an hour and a quarter away. Gradually they can see it more clearly. It is Rutland Island in the distance.

Suddenly one diesel engine begins to choke and sputter. It finally stops. The other engine still has some diesel left. Baath wonders how much longer the diesel will last. Shortly after nine in the morning, the second engine also begins to sputter and dies. They have run out of diesel. All the dinghy has left is a ten litre jerry can of engine oil, kept in case the oil leaked out for some reason.

Drop the anchor, shouts Baath. Drop it now. Play out all the line. Baath knows the gradients from those islands are very steep.

Rama Rao throws the anchor overboard. Rapidly the line follows till it is all played out. Baath assumes the depth here must be more than 300 metres. There is no more rope in the dinghy to reach that kind of depth.

The sea is becoming rough. The waves are rising now. With the engine shut, the boat is turning on its own, parallel to the giant waves. As the bigger waves rush in water starts crashing into the dinghy from the side. There is a chance that the dinghy might capsize. There are two long oars in the dinghy. Baath asks Rama Rao Sr to pull them out and they begin rowing. The boat remains parallel to the waves. There is no difference at all. The waves and the wind keep pushing the boat back, away from the island. They are drifting at the rate of half a knot. They can see the islands recede in the distance. By afternoon they can no longer see the islands.

Baath feels hungry but there is no food left. All the food that was left has gone soggy in the rain and the waves crashing into the dinghy. They have some fishing lines and a lure but fish don’t bite when the sea is rough. The dinghy needed to move much faster to lure the fish. At half a knot the fish wouldn’t bite even if the sea were calm. The dinghy is being tossed by the waves, away into the open sea. Water is continuously rushing into the boat.

Himanshu, Baath, and both the Rama Raos are all taking turns emptying the water out with the three bailers in the dinghy. They can’t even correct the direction of the boat with the oars because the winds are too strong. There is nothing they can do. If they let the boat carry on like this it is sure to capsize. Bruno and Camille are watching helplessly, despair written on their faces.

We have no choice but to rig up a sail, Baath tells Bruno. If we go with the wind there’s a much better chance of the boat not capsizing, Baath shouts over the howling wind.

But if we go with the wind we are going to be heading even farther away from land, Bruno protests.
If the boat capsizes we will be in the water, Baath shouts. We can hang on longer if we are in the dinghy than if we are in the water. The only way we can stay in the boat is if we go with the wind. Bruno keeps quiet.

Take down the canvas from the front of the boat, Baath shouts to Himanshu and Rama Rao Sr. Quickly. We have no time to lose.

The waves and the wind keep pushing the boat back, away from the island. They are drifting at the rate of half a knot. They can see the islands recede in the distance. By afternoon they can no longer see the islands.

Himanshu, Rama Rao and Baath begin to dismantle the tarpaulin top that covers the front portion of the dinghy underwhich Camille and Bruno shelter. It is tough work. The dinghy is rocking from side to side against the big waves. It is moving so much that it is difficult to stand and work.

Baath instructs Rama Rao to remove two of the wooden poles that support the tarpaulin lengthwise. These are long poles and Baath thinks they can form the side-supports for the makeshift sail.

Now tie the poles to the two sides of the canopy, instructs Baath. Tie it to the sides that have the holes in them. The canopy has a line of evenly placed metal-ringed holes running on two sides. Using the rope in the dinghy they tie the canopy to the poles. They try putting the poles through the interstices of the wooden beams that support the hull like a skeleton on the inside of the dinghy but it doesn’t hold. They try supporting it with another stick in the narrower end. Even that doesn’t hold. Finally Baath instructs that the other end of the canopy be tied down to a gap in the beams in the aft section of the dinghy.

This works. It is tough work tying it because the improvised sail immediately fills with wind. Rama Rao runs to the tiller to steer with the wind. The dinghy begins to go with the sea. It is moving faster now, the sail filled with wind.

Soon huge waves start rushing in from the back of the dinghy. The dinghy plows into the trough and the stern sticks out in the front. The waves are so big that Himanshu feels the boat will be submerged. But the dinghy rides the waves.

It is almost evening now and it is still raining. They drink small quantities of water. They are not thirsty. They are hungry. Bruno has two bananas left in his carry bag. He takes one and shares it with Camille. The other banana remains in the bag. They don’t offer it to anyone. Bruno offers the first bite to Camille and eats what is left of it. After eating, he puts the banana peel back into the bag. Camille can feel the rest of them staring. She opens her bag and takes out three chewing gums. She offers one to Baath who takes it silently, puts it in his mouth and begins chewing on it. Thank you, he says after a while. You know I’ve never eaten chewing gum for lunch. I must say it is much better than I thought it would be. Camille smiles weakly at Baath.

Rama Rao Sr takes out the vadas that have become soggy in the rain and is about to eat them. Baath makes him throw them away. He doesn’t want anybody getting sick in the dinghy.

Baath instructs Rama Rao Sr to pull the ladder hooked to the side of the dinghy inside. Rama Rao leans it on the plank.

The dinghy is surging east in the wind. Baath thinks that if they continue in this direction they will wash up in the southern coast of Burma or the northern coast of Thailand. But that was still about 200 or 220 nautical miles away.

It is as if Bruno has read Baath’s thoughts. Land is very far away this way, Bruno tells Baath.

At least we are not going towards India, Baath responds. That coastline is 700 miles away.

Excerpted with permission from Adrift by V. Sudarshan
(Hachette India, 256 pages, Rs. 399).