“Your father has been arrested for stealing sea turtles from the beach,” Meera gasped, finally catching up with Shimplya, who was marching off in a rage. Mirchi and Malhar got there behind her, huffing and puffing, Munna tailing along with them.

Shimplya turned around, his eyes blood red. Dismissing Meera with a flick of his hands, he walked away with big strides.

“Dekh...I know you are upset,” Mirchi took over, trotting along behind Shimplya, ‘But this time, we have pukka news.’

Shimplya stopped.

“I met my photography teacher outside the police station,” explained Meera. “His friend is a biologist working on turtle conservation. She mentioned that your father was arrested today for stealing turtles.”

“My father has nothing to do with stealing turtles!” yelled Shimplya, before turning around and stomping away to the other side of the road.

“Shimplya! Slow down!” Mirchi held up his hand to hold back traffic, following Shimplya towards the beach.

Shimplya walked on, past children building sandcastles and playing football, couples cuddling under trees, and families gathered on straw mats. In the distance, waves crashed onto the shore, beyond which, little lights shone upon ships harboured in the Maulsari Bay. Above, the sky was painted in deep hues of red and purple. It all appeared idyllic and calm; all except Shimplya. The boy was bolting ahead in a rage, the M4 tailing behind him. After walking on for several minutes, Shimplya finally settled down on a rock by the water’s edge.

“My Appa is not a thief! That’s all I know. He is honest and hard-working,” Shimplya finally gave vent to his emotions, wiping his tears with his sleeves.

“Perhaps he accidentally harmed the turtles then?” Meera ventured a guess, balancing herself on a rock next to him.

“No, he couldn’t have,” Shimplya said through a curtain of tears. “He is the last man in Maulsari who could harm turtles.”

“Relax, dost!” Mirchi pressed Shimplya’s shoulder. “Maybe there’s something you don’t know and –”

“Even if harm were to come to us, Appa wouldn’t harm turtles.” Shimplya rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to display a tattoo on his arm.

Scrunching up their eyes, the others peered at the figure on Shimplya’s hand under the fading light of dusk.

“That’s so cool,” said Malhar, his head at a tilt, “you have a turtle tattoo!”

“The turtle is our totem. We would never harm it,” said Shimplya.

“Totem?” asked Malhar. But Shimplya went on without pausing to explain. “Last year when fishermen were told to stop using trawlers to prevent harming turtles, my father was one of the first to follow the advice. He even asked other fishermen to do the same. Now why would he go and steal turtles?”

“Arre…tu kya bol raha hai?” Mirchi threw up his hands. “I can’t follow a word!”

“Dekh,” Shimplya sighed, “when we go fishing, we end up catching not just fish, but several other creatures like turtles as well. They are the accidental catch. With fishermen now moving away from traditional fishing nets to large trawler boats for fishing, they end up trapping hundreds of turtles in the trawlers.”

“Hmm…” Meera nodded, “Go on…”

“Last year, we were told by the Fisheries Department of the government that the trawlers are killing thousands of turtles and we were advised to stop using them. We wouldn’t want to harm the turtles… You see, we worship them. So, my father agreed and requested other fishermen to do the same, asking them to revert to the traditional methods of fishing.”

“So, what happened then?”

“Many fishermen resisted. The trawlers are faster. The catch is larger. More fish means more money.”

‘Baat toh sahi hai,’ nodded Mirchi.

“My father was the first person in the fishing colony at Anna Nagar to say that we need to go back to our traditional ways of hook and net fishing even if it meant lesser profits. For the sake of the turtles and other life that was being needlessly killed. Like I said, the turtle is our totem. We wouldn’t harm it for anything in the world!”

“What is this totem business?” Malhar whispered into his sister’s ears.

“As his campaign found more supporters,” Shimplya continued, “he was threatened by people who did not want to give up trawlers. Communities like ours that worship turtles are a minority. There was a lot of tension and fighting. A lot of name-calling and abusing between the two groups. My father is caught in the middle of this mess.”

“Wow,” pouted Malhar. “I never once thought of all this while I ate fish!”

“You know,” Meera nodded thoughtfully,” this seems to add up to what Akhila told us. It does seem like someone is trying to get your father into trouble.”

“Meaning?” Shimplya stared at Meera.

“So it seems the police claim to have caught a sack full of sea turtles from your father’s boat,” Meera explained, “But apparently they are not sea turtles at all. Akhila said they were all freshwater turtles!”

“Really?” Shimplya’s eyes grew wide.

“Are you sure?”

“Look…I don’t know. But Akhila is a turtle expert. I’m sure she knows the difference. She told me that although poaching sea turtles and fresh-water turtles are both punishable crimes, it seemed odd to her that the pictures of turtles that the police sent her from the beach were of freshwater turtles which are actually found only in inland waters.”

“But Didi, what difference does that make?” asked Malhar.

“Of course it makes a big difference!” Shimplya stood up, recharged by this piece of information. “They produce some freshwater turtles, claim they found it in my father’s boat and accuse him of poaching them from the beach! Obviously, this means

“…that someone has planted them there to get your father into trouble!” Mirchi completed the sentence.

Excerpted with permission from The Case of The Missing Turtles, Mallika Ravikumar, Talking Cub Books.