I joined the Boy Scouts in 7th grade for a couple of reasons. For one, my brother was already a scout and I was very well acquainted with the motto, knots and scouting lore. I was merely following in his footsteps. For another, that seemed to be the only outlet to adventure for a boy of my age. I have already referred to my scouting experience in a previous blog, I had left the scout camp memories for a later date and that time has come.
When I was in school, when we came to 7th grade, we had a couple of choices. We could join the Boy Scouts or the NCC (National Cadet Corps). The attraction that NCC held was the promise of being taken to a firing range for target practice. If you were planning on joining the armed forces or were generally interested in guns, this was definitely the way to go. On a more mundane level, you were also given coupons to get some food from the canteen after each parade and that was also a good reason to join. The attraction that the Boy Scouts held was the annual scout camp to Annie Besant Park in Dodballapur. Dodballapur is roughly 40 Km from Bangalore, my hometown. I had dreamt of attending a scout camp from the time I was in second grade. That was when my brother attended his first scout camp and came back with stories that captured my young imagination.
I must admit, that I viewed scout camps with rose-tinted glasses. My imagination was fueled by a couple of “Pathfinder Annuals” that we had lying at home. Published in the UK, these hardbound books on Scouting provided a wealth of material on knots, setting up camps, identifying animal spoors and making plaster of Paris casts of animal footprints, building bridges with staves and other practical things. I concentrated on the camps and campfires. The annuals had sketches of neat tents and happy looking boys roasting sausages and potatoes over a fire. Now, at that age, sausages were a treat. Being a foodie, I suspect the sausages held more attraction to me than anything else.
I pretended to go on scout camps at home. I packed my school bag with some biscuits, a flashlight, penknife, my brother’s scouting rope and I set up camp on our balcony. A couple of gunny bags slung across a pole served as my tent. When I finally got to seventh grade, I promptly enlisted in the scouts and blazed through the tenderfoot tests in a couple of days. I could not wait for the scout camp. When the camp dates were announced, I was excited. I used to take the bus home with a couple of my friends who were also in scouts and I discussed the ensuing camp with them. We discussed what contraband we would take – food. I proudly announced that my mother was baking some cookies and giving me other snacks.
My grandfather, endowed with all those endearing and generous qualities that grandfathers are blessed with, had bought me a rucksack. He had bought it most likely from the store from which he bought school bags and it was in Masjid Bunder in Bombay. I would occasionally visit the “Army Store” on Commercial Street in Bangalore and look longingly at the rucksacks, but they were outside the accepted price range at home, so the gift from my grandfather was gratefully accepted. We were given a list of things to pack, but I had nothing to worry about, my brother was a veteran and I packed what he recommended. Change of clothes, a couple of blankets, I did not have a sleeping bag, I would have to make do with a blanket, toiletries, a basic first aid kit and the all-important mosquito repellent cream – Odomos. Also accompanying me was the faithful green melamine plate and pink plastic mug that had accompanied my brother on many a camping trip. Stashed away securely were the snacks I was taking from home.
A motley group of excited boys gathered at the Bangalore City Railway Train station. The freshers were all excited, the seniors walked around with a smug air, no doubt amused by our enthusiasm. Been there, done that, they seemed to say. Boys pack light and we all clambered into the train. Some of the boys had fancy rucksacks with sleeping bags attached to them. These were probably the guys who could afford the stuff at the Army Store or who perhaps had relatives abroad. The train journey was short, we alighted at Dodballapur and then hiked the kilometer or so to the campsite.
Annie Besant Park is named after Dr Annie Besant. A theosophist, champion of women’s rights and an advocate for Irish and Indian self-rule, she was also a founder of the Scout movement in India. The park is permanently devoted to NCC and Scout camps. About 100 acres in area, it was unofficially considered to be the largest campsite in Asia. A sign at the train station read “NCC, Scouts and Guides alight here for Annie Besant Park”. I had passed the station several times in the past when I would go on my summer vacation to Bombay by train and had dreamt of alighting at the station.
I had a good idea of the site already since my brother had described it to me. The tents were pitched in a rough horseshoe shape. There was a rocky outcrop which was called “Council Rock”, the name owing its origin to Kipling’s “Jungle Book”. A dining hall with a kitchen and stores where the tents, ropes, etc were stored. Log cabins were situated on the other side and were usually reserved for the Guides (Girl Scouts are called Guides in India). There were a few latrines. Nearby were taps as well as a hand-powered water pump. Standing tall over the campsite was a watchtower. I must admit that while writing this, I had to rely on my brother’s memory for the layout of the campsite.
Besides our scoutmasters – Mr. SG Bhat and Joseph Xavier, we were accompanied by our school gardener known to us as “Mali”. He would be cooking food for us. A senior was selected as the Quarter Master. Patrol leaders were selected and we were assigned tents. We did not get a choice of the patrol leader or our tent mates. Once that was done, the Quarter Master handed out the supplies. Tents, staves, guy ropes and tarps. We then busied ourselves by pitching our tents. These canvas tents were large enough to accommodate about eight to ten occupants. A tarp was spread on the ground and the tents were secured to pegs by using guy ropes. We then chose our positions within the tents and set our rucksacks. After we were done, we went out to reconnoiter our surroundings.
We walked along the lake, visited other tents and generally felt very grand. It was dusk when we returned to our tent. As soon as we entered our tent, I realized something was amiss. My rucksack had been ransacked and my food was all gone! We had forgotten to leave a guard. I was crushed. It was the first time I had been robbed. I had looked forward to sharing my snacks with my tent mates late at night. I went up to Mr. Bhat and complained with tears welling in my eyes that I had been robbed. He was discussing campfire plans with two senior scouts. He listened to me patiently, and then gently pointed out that we were not supposed to bring food and added that if we did, it was not to be advertised. I went back morosely to my tent, my trip had begun on a sour note. After a couple of years, I did find out the identity of the senior who had raided my rucksack. He was a senior with whom I took the bus home and to whom I had naively mentioned that I was bringing snacks.
Dinner was nothing like what I had seen in the Pathfinder Annuals. Rice and watery rasam (stew). Mali obviously had to cook for about sixty hungry boys and I think his repertoire was limited by the available provisions. I think we had to volunteer for kitchen duty but I am not exactly sure. We were hungry nevertheless and excited by the prospect of the campfire. By then, night had descended and the mosquitos no doubt excited by the fresh buffet laid out for them, initially serenaded and then attacked us. We smeared odomos liberally but the sounds of palms smacking against limbs and muttered curses could be heard everywhere. The campfire was duly lit and we gathered around. We had prepared skits and I found myself acting in a couple of skits, loosely based on the BBC show “Mind your Language”. My friend Irshad, draped in a shawl sang “Musafir hoon yaaron, na ghar hai, na tikhana” (I am a traveler, my friends. I have no home or address, I just have to keep traveling). Stanley, the comic genius of the group, came up with a Kannada version of “One Way Ticket” (Ondhu daari cheetu). There were campfire cries and songs.
I still remember a set of ditties that were sung to the tune of the popular Sri Lankan baila “Surangani”. The song tells the tale of a fisherman who takes fish to a girl named Surangani who refuses to accept the fish. Baila refers to the genre of music that arose from the fusion of the music of the Portuguese and the Africans settled in Sri Lanka.
The verses went:
“The mama met the papa
Under the coconut tree
Said the mama to the papa
Will you marry me”?
“The food in the army
They say is mighty fine
You ask for sausages
They give you intestine!”
“The drink in the army
They say is mighty fine
You ask for whiskey
They give you turpentine!”
These were usually sung by Stanley and between each verse, the whole troop would join in chorus with:
Suranganita malu genawa
Maalu maalu malu
Dan genapu malu
Suranganita malu genawa”
As the campfire died down, we roasted some Lijjat papads on the glowing embers.
We had lanterns for lights in the tents, there was a lights-off policy by a certain time and we settled down for the night. It was uncomfortable, I had no sleeping bag, but I was too tired. I had slept for just a couple of hours when I was roused by my tent mates and we went out in the night. The sky was a kaleidoscope of stars! With very little ambient light, the night sky was magnificent. It took just a little while for our eyes to acclimatize and the campground was bathed in moonlight. A couple of seniors pointed out constellations. We walked around the campground, went past the lake. Now, this was an adventure! This was what Jim Corbett and Ken Anderson talked about in their books. Of course, they were tracking man-eating tigers and leopards, I was just out on a stroll. We tried to keep our voices down, we were not supposed to be out. We clambered up the watchtower to get a better view. I’m sure Mr. Bhat knew, he had been a scoutmaster for years and had come across several young whippersnappers like us! We returned after an hour or so and snuggled back into our sleeping bags. We had to check though to make sure there were no scorpions inside the tent.
There were a few latrines and if you were smart, you used them early in the morning. Showers were taken under the taps or at the water pump, a friend operated the hand pump while we stood under the spout. We did not linger long, the water was cold! Breakfast was Upma (spicy porridge made with semolina) and we then assembled for some activities where we learned some construction projects with staves and ropes. We learned semaphore signaling using our scarves. We had a break for lunch which was again rice and rasam (or possibly sambar) with a vegetable side dish. After lunch, we practiced our skits for the evening’s campfire. When I look back, the daytime activities are hazy, the campfires stand out because it was then that we had the most fun.
The nights were always interesting and fun, We usually had a sentry on guard through the night. A password had to be used to enter a tent. If you didn’t have a sentry, you ran the risk of getting “pasted”. This was when raiders from other tents would enter a tent silently and squeeze toothpaste onto the faces or belongings of the victims who were fast asleep. This usually happened on the last night, when there would be no chance of retribution. Nights were also when we chowed on tinned food and snacks. Our tent started sporting a pretty funky smell after a day or so. We searched around but could not figure out the source. We blamed it on the unhygienic habits of a couple of tent mates.
The night before we left, we usually had a treat in the form of “payasam” a dessert that was poured into our mugs and we slurped gratefully. We packed up our tents, folded everything down neatly and returned it to the quartermaster. When we had dismantled our tent, we found the cause of the odor. A small piece of tinned meat that had fallen into the folds of the tarp had cooked in the hot sun. After returning all the supplies, we had a grand campfire and that night we slept in the log cabins. The next morning, we left early to catch the train back to Bangalore. We returned home as though we were veterans of a foreign war. I must admit I viewed the bathroom and comforts at home with newfound appreciation.
My brother was a veteran camper. He would go off on private camping trips with three other friends. They would stay for a couple of weeks in Dodballapur surviving on their own cooking. Tea made with condensed milk along with biscuits was their main sustenance. They roughed it out. On one camping trip, he along with his mates mapped the entire park using triangulation. Every tree was mapped accurately along with other features including the council rock and watchtower. His friend Kedar’s dad was an architect and Kedar had blueprints made. This was a phenomenal labor of love and interest. I tend to have a big mouth and when I boasted that my brother had mapped the entire campsite, my classmate who continued in scouts after eighth grade requested the maps since he was working on mapping for his First Class badge. I lent it to him, never to get it back. He misplaced it and after several queries, replied nonchalantly that he had lost it. There was no malice, he had been careless. My brother was understandably upset but there was nothing to be done. While writing this blog, I spoke to my brother and he remembered the smallest details. He reminded me that we slackened the guy ropes at night. If it rained, the tents would sag due to the weight and we had to leave some slack in the rope if not the tent would collapse. He also remembers having to dig a shallow trench around the tent to keep the snakes out. I don’t think we had to do that. We had raised platforms of earth upon which we pitched our tent. Having made several trips to the camping ground, he still retains a vivid memory of the campsite as well as its surroundings.
I went on a second camping trip in eighth grade. I now knew what to expect. I was on guard, my food was not stolen. I was the assistant patrol leader and took the juniors through their paces. This time Fr Ambrose Pinto accompanied us. By coincidence, the Cluny Convent Girls School was also at the same site. The Guides as they were called, occupied the log cabins. Mr. Bhat had retired and Fr Ambrose along Mr. Joseph Xavier were the scoutmasters. I think our stay with the Guides overlapped just for a day and it was decided to have a joint campfire. Fr Ambrose warned us beforehand that our skits had to be clean, we had to be on our best behavior and that he would not tolerate any shenanigans. He put the fear of god and punishment in us. The campfire went on smoothly until Fr Ambrose led us on a campfire cry. Apparently, it was an African cry. He would say “brubra” and we were supposed to yell back “BRUBRA”. I think all boys are prurient. When Fr Ambrose said “brubra”, in an amazing show of unpremeditated, collective prurience, we shouted back “bru BRA”. Now we were supposed to say it a couple of times but I think we got carried away. A few girls sniggered and then Fr Ambrose caught on. He was seated with the teachers from Cluny Convent. His face turned red and he hurried over after our fourth or fifth lusty call, yelling at us “Enuff, I say! Enuff!”. No exotic camp cries after that.
In all, I attended just two scout camps. I switched to the Chem Club in ninth grade and with that my scouting days came to an end. My brother, during his scouting days, had attended a Jamborette at Sakleshpur and a Jamboree at Madras. He also made several private camping trips on his own. The camping facilities are excellent here in the US and there are several campsites where I live. A few years ago, a group of my friends who had been camping annually as a tradition, graciously invited me for their camping trip. We carried our supplies and pitched a couple of tents. The comparison ended there though. This camping trip had sleeping bags, air mattresses, gourmet food and excellent Scotch! We lit a rousing campfire and listened to songs on a blue tooth speaker while we shot the breeze. We grilled delectable kababs (give me a seekh kabab over a sausage any day!) and sipped on beverages of our choice. It was not all comfort though. We had to lock our food in our cars at night to keep the bears away from our tents and it rained heavily at night. The water found its way in and there was some consternation. That was the last camping trip. We have been “glamping” since then, renting cabins in the mountains or heading to warmer places in the South.
At the end of the day, the campfires and camaraderie from my scouting days stays fresh in my mind. Irshad, “the traveler,” has settled down in MA and l live a few miles away from him. I don’t remember the camp skits but I vaguely remember an absent-minded drunken character called “Booze Mali” who featured in several of them. I still remember the “Surangani” ditties. When I was thirteen, I thought I would always have my friends and the thought of adventure attracted me to Scouting. I no longer care for adventures and while my friends no longer live close by, they are close to me albeit virtually. I chat with several of my scouting and non-scouting buddies every day on WhatsApp and meet them when I return home to Bangalore. I’ve never had to tie a bowline or a sheepshank. I’ve not had to construct tripods using staves to heat a tea-kettle over a fire. I’ve not had to identify animal spoors. The deer leave footprints in the snow in my backyard. I don’t need scouting experience to identify them. What scouting gave me though was friendships and memories that have lingered long after my scouting days. It has also added another thread to the rich tapestry of common memories that I share with my brother. And most of all, I had fun and formed friendships. Adventure was the bait, friendships were the consequence. Mr. Bhat would probably nod his head sagely in the happy camping grounds above and agree with my assessment. Those were the days, my friend!