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Why the Andamans are fantasy islands

Visit the Andamans once, and you’ll be as much in captivity as the prisoners it once held

brunch Updated: May 30, 2017 15:39 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Vijaynagar Beach, Havelock Island, offers both beauty and serenity
Vijaynagar Beach, Havelock Island, offers both beauty and serenity (Saubhadra Chatterji)

A good cabbie, a friend had declared, holds the key to happiness in the Andamans. I remember this advice as I step out of the Veer Savarkar Airport into the afternoon heat of Port Blair and a shouting brigade of drivers.

Call it luck. Somehow, I spot the only cabbie not enthusiastic to take me for a ride! And Srinivasan turns out to be a good driver-cum-guide-cum-ticket agent and, most importantly, a decent guy.

This is my second visit to this part of India. I had come here a week after the 2004 tsunami to report on the then air chief’s visit. But that was a depressing tour.

Now, the small city of Port Blair has returned to normalcy: wine shops have long queues, shabby restaurants are playing old Hindi songs, airlines have stopped discounted fares and cynical groups of Bengali tourists are flocking to the islands.

At night, Srinivasan left my wife and me at our B&B with two warnings: “Don’t be late tomorrow and no photography inside the jungle.”

The view from the Radhanagar Beach (Saubhadra Chatterji)

 Muddy start
The first streaks of light have appeared in the sky. Our Indica zooms past the sleeping city, coconut groves and paddy fields for almost hundred kilometres and stops in front of a barricade.

On the other side, a dense jungle awaits us. The morning breeze whizzes through tall trees. There’s something in the air that suddenly makes us feel cold.

The last sign of human activity is a crowded tea and samosa stall. There’s also a pay and use toilet. The latter has a thicker crowd as no one knows when they’ll find the next loo.

After an hour, the convoy of more than 200 vehicles with police jeeps at both ends (to ensure no one stops or slows down) rolls into the forests. Srinivasan glances to check if my camera is safely inside my bag.

Soon, I see the reason: two Jarwa boys standing in the middle of the road and yelling at the passing cars. And after a few hundred metres, a family with a cute baby is sitting at the roadside.

“It’s a signal that they want a lift. Very soon, a special bus or van will come,” my cabbie explains.

The long road through the jungle ends near a narrow strait. We take a big steamer to cross over to the other side.

The Baratang Island, many people said, offers natural wonders. My wife forced me to rush to ‘mud volcano’. After climbing a hillock for 10 minutes, all I see is a small pool of mud with bubbles coming out in a few places.

“Utter waste of time,” I grumble while we board a speedboat for a mangrove jungle.

Inside view of the limestone caves (Saubhadra Chatterji)

Life’s a beach
Forests, whether on the hills or beside muddy creeks, are magical in the Andamans. The abundance of nature means that along the rural tracks, locals sell raw mangoes sprinkled with rock salt (yummy), coconut water (at throwaway prices) and handicrafts.  

My eyes settle on a fat rooster. (These villagers rear livestock.) The owner demands ~120. It’s loot, I murmur but as usual, fail to convince my wife. “How can you think of buying chicken here?” she looks astonished. Almost the same reaction as Jairam Ramesh, when he saw me at the Hyderabad airport packing four-five boxes of dum biryani. “You are packing biryani for Delhi, really?” Jairam had said in disbelief.

 Three days in Havelock Island means pure bliss. It’s so different from the raw side of Andaman. I camp at a resort near the serene Vijaynagar Beach.

Every morning, my main activity is to watch molluscs, collect shells and walk on the vast white-sanded beach. In the evenings, I drag a chair near the beach and see the starry sky while sipping a beer.

At the world-renowned Radhanagar beach, a local hotelier recommends that we also visit the Elephant Beach on the other side of the Havelock. A boat ride takes us to the hotspot of water sports in Andaman.

Mangrove forests in Baratang Island (Saubhadra Chatterji)

The first thing I notice is a kiosk selling sea-walking trips. I negotiate hard for a full return of fees in case I get cold feet at the last moment.

A 35kg glass helmet – almost like the ones worn by astronauts – is put on my head. I step down the boat’s ladder into the water. My ears pop in pain due to increased air pressure. The first five minutes are horrible. But when I touch the sea bed, I feel like an explorer who has discovered a new world.

On the beach, everyone looks happy frolicking in the crystal clear water. People are parasailing, snorkelling, or riding water scooters. 

In this blissful atmosphere, only a group of Bengalis is quarrelling among themselves. The kids are crazy about water sports but their mother wants them to sit quietly on the beach.

When the melodramatic Bong mother is about to weep, I get up and start looking for a better place.

Memory’s prisoner
In Port Blair, nearly all tourists rush to the Cellular Jail – an icon of India’s freedom struggle – in the evening to watch a fabulous light and sound show. The Ross Island, Andamans’ capital during the British era, also has a brilliant show, depicting the history of these islands. Here, the voice-over is by poet and lyricist Gulzar and undoubtedly, it’s one of his best narrations.

We return to the Cellular Jail next morning. A guide takes us around and finally, we are on the terrace of the jail buildings. “It’s the only place to get a panoramic view of Port Blair,” the young guide announces.

Behind the lush green, the Bay of Bengal reminds us that several decades ago, crossing the kala pani was considered to be a sin.

Inside Veer Savarkar’s cell in the Cellular Jail (Saubhadra Chatterji)

Now, the memories of the British Raj, the jungles of Jarwas, the magnificent mangroves beckon tourists for a memorable journey to this faraway part of India.

It’s been many weeks since I returned from the Andamans. But even now, whenever I see the smoggy sky of a polluted Delhi, I remember those starry nights at the Vijaynagar Beach.

From HT Brunch, March 26, 2017

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