The Andamans: An unexplored, untainted enigma!

The best things in life are always unplanned, unexpected. I agree. Wholeheartedly.

We did not have months of anticipation and mad wonderings, neither meticulously designed plans – ‘impromptu’ is the word that defines my trip to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. And like every decision that I’ve taken on an impulse, this too turned out to be one of the best trips that I’ve ever had, so far.

Half my family was already enjoying the sun and the sand when my dad and I boarded our flight to Port Blair, after an exceedingly restless wait at the Kolkata Airport. Once secure in my window seat, I stared out, braving a blazing sun, and saw the city of Kolkata gradually make way for the Sunderbans, and finally the Bay of Bengal. Once over the sea, it was as if the entire world had been painted in shades of blue, and dotted with white.

After about an-hour-and-a-half, I was rewarded with the first glimpse of the archipelago. The blue waters that were such a prominent part of the landscape till a while earlier, gave way to the numerous islands that seemed to have been conjured with the flick of some magician’s wand. I took a deep breath and braced myself for what awaited me.

Before long, we landed at the Veer Savarkar International Airport at Port Blair – an airport that was almost endowed with the status of an international airport, but the decision-takers retreated at the eleventh hour. The nomenclature, however, stands unaltered.

After checking into our hotel, we decided to explore the city on our own. Goes without saying, we began our exploration from the place that the city of Port Blair is so famous/infamous for – The Cellular Jail. A National Memorial now, this huge building dominates the landscape of the city, looming over the entire island – almost a reminder of the grim task that was allocated to it for several decades.

Across the main gate of the Cellular Jail, is located the Veer Savarkar Park. A piece of greenery that lies opposite to the magnificent and intimidating concrete edifice of the Cellular Jail, the park is built in memory of the freedom fighter whose name is ubiquitous in the city.

Across the park, spread out in front of me, was the clear, transparent blue of the sea, in several shades – the azure sky above me, merging with the brilliant forget-me-not blue of the sea, and a carpet of greenish-blue water towards the horizon. I stood mesmerised by this blast of blue – and for how long time stood still there, I have no idea.

Following my rendezvous with the sea and the sky, I proceeded towards the Cellular Jail. The entrance made way for the museum, and the history of our freedom fighters, writ in golden letters, adorned the numerous galleries inside the structure. I walked through one of the murkiest chapters of the history of our country, agape at how little we are taught inside classrooms. These people, for whom we enjoy the air today, have very conveniently been glossed over in our history books. All that has been spared after pages and pages of the history of Europe and that of the Indian National Congress are perhaps a couple of sentences on the condition of the prisoners who had to fight with their fates inside the Cellular Jail. The phrase ‘Kaala Pani’ is supposed to be one that invokes the feeling of fear in our hearts, and I’m not sure whether that is one of the reasons why we haven’t been taught enough about the likes of Ram Rakha Bhali or Kalipada Bhattacharji.

The location of the Jail served every thinkable purpose of the Colonisers. All around the island was the sea, and escape from the jail was, simply put, impossible. The gallows offered to three prisoners, simultaneously, the way to heaven. Once hanged till death, the corpses were just thrown into the sea – incurring no additional expense for cremation or burial on the Government. The silence inside the walls of each cell is reverberant with the stories of the brutal atrocities that their inmates were subjected to. Every person here was sentenced to nothing less than Solitary Confinement.

After spending several hours rather wrapped in the history of the Cellular Jail, we headed towards the Aberdeen Bazaar. Inside the Marina Park, as I let the cool evening breeze play with my hair, I kept thinking about the level of tolerance that each of the prisoners was endowed with. Vertigo set in after a while, and I had to jolt myself back.

In the distance I could see the sun set on the Ross Island, colouring the treetops in orange. Soon, dusk set in, and I could see the stars appear one after another in that cloudless October sky. And, not wanting to be left behind, the city too lighted up. It was a breathtaking view. That night, there in the city of Port Blair, I felt like I was in the midst of a dream.

The next morning we set off for Havelock Island – one of the most important attractions that draw thousands of people to the archipelago each year. After an extremely scenic journey of about an-hour-and-a-half, we dropped anchor at our destination.

Radha Nagar Beach – ‘The Best Beach in Asia’ – justifies the title in every possible manner. The sea was wonderful, the waves weren’t too high, and the sand seemed like velvet beneath our feet. Soon after, the sun went beneath the horizon, painting the sky in shades of vibrant orange and red, and we headed back.

The next morning we started off for Elephant Island, one of the many sites where the water is as calm as that of a lake. Our speedboat ripped through the calm surface of the sea and after about half an hour of the scorching sun and the inescapable tan, we reached Elephant Island.

We gaped at the sculptures inside the sea, in other words – corals, through the floor of a glass-bottomed boat. The view was spectacular and I was compelled to resurrect all my high school biology when I re-encountered the fact that these were living, breathing creatures. Once my eyes were satiated with the view of these underwater corals, my hands itched to touch and feel them. I put on the snorkelling gear, and off I went into the sea.

The myriads of fishes and other sea-creatures kept me entranced for a long time. I touched the corals with my hands, felt the tingle of a sea cucumber as my feet brushed its surface, and held a living oyster for sometime before letting it go. Ecstasy is a word that can somewhat capture the essence of that moment, however, most of it would always lie inarticulate. After this, we indulged in a bit of water sports, we took turns to sit on a water-chute and let ourselves be subjected to that generous dose of adrenaline that the ride offered us.

After a lot of swimming and basking in the sun, we headed back to Havelock. Thereafter, we left for Port Blair. Once back, we waited expectantly for the next morning – the one when we’d set out for the Land of the Jarawas.

Early next morning, we began our journey towards the abode of one of the most primitive tribes in the world – The Jarawas. We reached the check-point at about 8 o’clock in the morning, and an hour later we were finally able to access the road. Strict conditions called for all vehicles to travel through the Reserve in a single convoy, headed and tailed by police vehicles.

After travelling for a while, we caught a glimpse of two Jarawa children. That encounter with the starkness of their appearance was kind of unsettling. It gave me goose bumps just to think of the fact that they have been able to ward off the advances of technology with such amazing calibre for such a long period of time. Their societies are still foreign to ideas of theft or adultery; they are strictly monogamous and have managed to keep their ethics unscathed for centuries. We sure are the children of an advanced community, but there are many territories where we need to learn from them.

Once we reached the Middle Strait Jetty, we got on a ship and after about fifteen minutes, we were at Nilambur. From there, on a speedboat, we proceeded towards the limestone cave. The mangrove creeks are the abode to crocodiles, and the numerous safety signs on the ground are plain scary. A kilometre-and-a-half later, we reached the limestone cave. The stalactites and stalagmites inside the cave were simply jaw-dropping, and the impenetrable darkness inside sent shivers down my spine.

When we reached the place where our boat was anchored, we were in for a tremendous shock. The comfortably deep water where our boat had dropped its anchor, had transformed into a pool of mud. It might have been a scene out of some medieval horror tale, but for the people around us. The boatmen got to work and once we were out in the open sea after those tormenting thirty minutes, we heaved sighs of relief!

At Nilambur, we boarded the ship back to the Middle Strait Jetty. About fifteen minutes later, we began our journey back through the Jarawa Forest. The evening was pleasant with birds chirping in the forest, and before long, we encountered an entire group of Jarawas. There were men with bows and arrows, children running around with intricate designs on their bodies – painted in mud, and women with enviable coiffeurs. The serpentine road though the hills offered us many such glimpses.

None of us was ready for what followed. A teenage Jarawa jumped on the footrest of our car and asked for a ‘paan’. We were left groping for words. It was an incident that gave rise to a plethora of emotions in me. There were fear, shock, and sadness among the ones that can be expressed in words, the others still remain inexpressible.

We reached the check-point after a while, and then Port Blair at around eight in the night. The next morning we set off for Carbyn’s Cove Beach, the only beach in Port Blair. At about six kilometres from the main city, the Carbyn’s Cove Beach is beautiful with calm water and rows of coconut trees along it.

Later that day, we caught the Light and Sound Show at the Cellular Jail. History was exorcised from the depths of the sea, and what unfolded in front of us that evening will leave a permanent dent in my mind. The screams of Ullas Sekhar Dutt, the baritone of Veer Savarkar, the shouts of Jailer David Barrie – were all reiterated in front of us. An hour passed in the blink of an eye, and all we were left with, are tears and memories.

Once outside, we witnessed yet another facet of Port Blair. The Diwali night in the city was a marvellous display of lights and colours. The Aberdeen Bazaar, Marina Park, the streets – every place was decked up with thousands and thousands of oil lamps and colourful lights. There were crackers being burst here and there, and the traffic on the roads was negligent to the point of invisibility. We walked back with heavy steps for we were to leave for Kolkata the next morning.

Bidding goodbye to the city of Port Blair seemed impossible – a place where the crime rate is zero, where the people are so friendly that you end up getting emotionally attached to them, a city which will forever remain cast in gold in my memory. Our flight back to Kolkata left us pining for more of Andamans, and I silently vowed to return to the archipelago at the earliest. For there were many, many islands waiting to be explored, there were many places that we weren’t able to visit, and of course – to experience the sand and the sea at its best!