India Charm Offensive
An Expat Pilot Flies The South Asia Jungle
At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating, humorous memoir, India Charm Offensive invites readers along for the ride as the author and pilot flies, works and lives in one of the most dangerous regions on earth.
The Bastar region of East India—it is a sun-scorched and lawless land of dense jungle, turbulent rivers and boulder strewn hillsides. The area has served as a hub for outlawed Maoist insurgents for decades, and armed with everything from bows and arrows to landmines and recoilless rifles, these rebels haunt its shadows.
FROM CHAPTER 20
India Charm Offensive
Departing the jungle camps was no time to coddle the engine. I always pulled maximum power, keeping one eye on the gauges and one eye on the flight path to obtain best angle of climb. The further away from Earth and the faster we got there, the safer we were. With a reasonably light load like the one we had departing Kistaram that day, the powerful Astar could gain altitude quickly, and that may have been the difference between life and death.
Suddenly, Babeesh lurched forward in his seat and thrust a filthy pointy finger against the window toward the ground. The words coming from his mouth were unintelligible and almost immediately drowned out by what sounded like the beginning of a hailstorm, though we were flying through cloudless sky. Three or four pops of sound rapidly escalated into a cacophonous staccato where I could not discern single hits anymore, only a continuous pelting. Like lighting the fuse to a string of a thousand firecrackers, it started off with two or three singles, then each crack became swallowed by the next until all I heard was a steady barrage.
“Those fuckers are shooting at us,” I said, “We’re being shot at.” Not that anyone aboard needed this illuminating clarification.
“Saa! Go up, go up, go up!” Babeesh shouted, big saucer eyes and betel nut juice dribbling down his chin.
The two troopers in back were shouting too, and even though they were shouting in Hindi, it was quite clear they wished for me to go up as well. Of that, I was in full agreement. Quickly glancing around, I didn’t see anyone shooting from my side, so with a steep, banking turn to the right, we angled away to the south, and the helicopter slowly—too slowly—climbed away from our would-be assailants.
During this melee—which seemed to last for two minutes, but was only about ten seconds—I was expecting to see bullet holes erupting out of the floor or through the chin bubble at any instant. We were climbing through one thousand feet MSL, which was around 700 feet AGL and still within range of most rifles. With all that shooting, how could they miss?
Perhaps they didn’t. At one point during the attack, I had felt a slight tap on the foot pedals, so slight that it might have been my imagination. After the shooting had stopped, but still climbing with all available power, I kept checking and rechecking the gauges for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing looked to be, although I was curious about that tap on my feet. I briefly considered continuing the short distance to Bheji and landing there to check it out. But, once reaching safe altitude, I reduced power and, with no negative signs from the gauges or unusual vibrations, dialed in Dantewada on the GPS and steered our ship that way. Bheji could have been overrun by bad guys at the same time, and I figured there was no sense jumping from the frying pan into the fire by landing there.
I certainly wasn’t landing back at Kistaram for a look-see, bad things were assuredly happening there, and landing any-where else in the jungle was hazardous. The closest, safest landing area was forty-minutes away, in Dantewada. That would give us all plenty of time to settle down and realize we were away from peril, if the helicopter held together that long; I imagined the exterior must have been riddled like Swiss cheese. Still amazed that no bullets had penetrated the cabin, I looked all around but did not see any evidence of the attack. Wiggling my toes inside my boots, I took inventory and was rewarded with responsive motor skills in all lower extremities.
Except for a dimly lit image of the Hindu god Shiva, it was dark throughout the house, and although the sun was on its way up outside, all the windows were closed and it remained inky black inside. From my upper-floor room, I carefully maneuvered down the steps to the rug at the bottom.
But it was more than just a rug—it was a human embedded in a rug. The company-hired houseboy was wrapped from head to toe like a pig-in-the-blanket from a man-eating giant’s hors d’oeuvres tray. Before realizing the pile of cloth contained a living organism, I clumsily grazed it with my foot, and the innocuous mound of textile erupted into a flurry of wild hair, grunting and elbows. He came scrambling out of the rug crazy-eyed, with ninja speed, and I stumbled and scrambled back up the stairs, fearing an early departure from India, or from this life. Why he preferred the floor to a couch only a couple feet away, I could not ascertain.
After a reality- and eye-adjusting moment 0r two, his heaving chest slowed. With a venomous gaze, he wondered aloud, in Hindi, just what the hell I wanted and what the hell I was doing.
“Coffee,” I said. “I need coffee.”
“Kofi?” His furrowed brow and dubious tone implied that this was an absurd request.
“Yes, coffee.” I was plenty prepared to make my own and, knowing his English was minimal, I tapped my chest for clarity and added, “I’ll make it, no worries, my friend.”
When I made that announcement, his dark eyes narrowed, and he eased into a position between me and the kitchen door signifying that I, apparently, was not welcome in there. He told me to wait and relax, a difficult thing for an early-morning coffee addict to do until the hot mug was delivered.
FROM CHAPTER 5
Smiley and the Reaper
“Everyone alright?” I asked, looking around at Babeesh and the two troopers, “Is anyone hit?”
They were all drenched in sweat that had nothing to do with the heat, but there were no signs of injury, and no one was shrieking in pain.
“S-Saa, w-we waa fired upon, saa!” Babeesh spluttered. He had managed to wipe the betel nut juice off his chin and must’ve swallowed the rest.
“Do you see any damage on your side?” I asked. “I don’t see anything… How ‘bout behind me?”
“I’ll check it out.” He was wearing a nervous smile, thank-ful to be alive, as were the rest of us.
He took off his headset and shoulder harness to maneuver around his seat, checking the floor behind me and the rest of the cabin interior for holes or damage. Our two passengers were standing up off their seats staring at them, apparently afraid they’d take a bullet in the keister if they sat back down. I continued watching the gauges for any signs of trouble, but we’d been lucky so far.
Babeesh settled the passengers down and after finding no damage, I asked him, “What did you see at Kistaram? I saw nothing from my side.”
“Three mans with AK47s waa firing at us, saa.”
As we were making our turn a hundred yards from the IPS camp, three insurgents on his side of the helicopter had come running out of the tree line into the rice paddies. They stopped, took aim and started firing. It was then I recalled those odd “villagers” that remained motionless while we flew over them. It wasn’t that they had been disinterested in us—quite the contrary—they were setting up an ambush. The attackers were well within the IPS’s allegedly secure, one-and-a-half-kilometer sanitized perimeter zone.
FROM CHAPTER 21
Smiley and the Reaper
FROM CHAPTER 9
DON'T TAKE MY KIDNEYS
They say don’t judge a book by the cover, but he had nervous eyes and the look of an unprincipled fugitive from justice. To check his bona fides and be on the safe side, I gave Sami a call, which he ignored. Giving Sanjay a ring, I had more success. He confirmed that this chap was the driver I was looking for and not some rogue in the employ of a nefarious villain.
Stowing my suitcase amongst the dirt and clutter in the trunk, I squeezed into the back of this, another white Tata, and settled in for the ride. Strange land, strange people and a strange journey ahead; at that point, just off the plane and on the move, I didn’t want to trade places with anyone. The future held mystery and adventure.
My Indian gangster driver sat down at the steering wheel, started up the car and, in a cloud of reddish-orange dust, we barreled out of the crowded parking lot to the soundtrack of howling engines and screeching tires, everyone leaning on their horns as if that would magically clear the road for them. We went screaming down the tree-lined lane outside the air-port, dodging pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, oxcarts, cars and trucks—all forms of ground transportation being put to toil—along with hundreds of wandering cattle, and they always had the right of way.
He kept the hammer down for five minutes until we pulled into a gas station. I figured it was only logical to gas up before the journey, but wait: gangster driver was having a serious chat with one of his confederates parked nearby. There seemed to be planning in progress, with much arm waving and what sounded like insults being exchanged. When they popped the lid on the trunk, I deduced that wheeling and dealing had gone down.
Indeed it had, and they played charades for me, trying to explain that I needed to switch cars. I hated to be a bother, but I thought another phone call to my mates for verification wouldn’t hurt. Only this time, no one answered from the office in Delhi. Gangster Driver and his collaborator both let off a vibe of potential organ smugglers. One of them appeared to be studying my rib cage for where best to start the incisions.
India Charm Offensive
They stood staring at me as if daring me to run. Sizing up the second driver, I calculated the odds of having to kick his butt later if he made a go for my kidneys and guessed it would be at least a draw. They already had my suitcase in the other car and were getting impatient and twitchy. With a few more moments of hesitation I finally transferred cars, instinctively covering my abdomen with my arms for self-defense while doing so.
We left Raipur at six in the evening, which gave me about an hour’s worth of daylight to take in the surroundings and grab a few photos. Jagdalpur, our destination to the south, was 170 miles by road from Raipur and, from Sami and Sanjay’s sugar-coated claims, only a two- or three-hour drive. They had never been there. In reality, the journey was a night-long Le Mans endurance event on poor roads through rural countryside, with landscapes varying from flat land and rice paddies, to lowland and steep hills, to rivers and sharp curves. I would never take that journey again at night.
Traveling at night on the roads was a death wish. India is consistently ranked one of the most dangerous places to drive in the world, and it is no wonder. All manner of transport, with vastly differing speeds, was trying to share the same route. Combine the narrow and ill-maintained roads with an oxcart traveling at three miles per hour and a forty-passenger bus traveling at fifty miles per hour, and the results range from dangerous to deadly.
Add cattle. Vagabond cattle roamed freely in India, from the urban sprawl of Delhi to rural dirt tracks and everywhere in between. The beasts are not concerned that a fifty-mile-per-hour steel and rubber death machine may be barreling down the very same road they intend to cross at their own slow pace. Having a head-on collision with one of these revered bovines would seem bad enough, but if you do accidently hit one and survive, don’t expect sympathy from the locals. There were many cases where villagers ganged up and beat the driver of a vehicle involved in a car versus cow smash-up.
Don't Take My Kidneys