It took me ten minutes to convince the tour organisers that I didn’t have a husband -- or a boyfriend -- who could accompany me to Lakshadweep. It was a companion offer on a cruise ship, they’d said and, well, I didn’t really have company. “What about a friend then -- you know, like just a friend?” They persisted. Bad supply chain management, I’d countered, nobody gets leave at such short notice.
Come to think of it, maybe somebody could have got leave at short notice, but it was a good thing I didn’t ask anybody to accompany me. I’m claustrophobic when it comes to private spaces, and the cabin-for-two was just about big enough for me to get around without being shaken up. As for ‘just friends’, I bumped into half-a-dozen I knew rather well even before the ship started rolling and reeling, before settling down to the dead calm of the Arabian Sea.
From Mumbai, we were going to Kadmat, the first stop in the league of 30 islands that was Lakshadweep, where we’d be spending the day, before sailing off to Goa.
What intrigued me most about the islands even before we docked there? This is the only state -- union territory, actually -- in India where there is an overwhelming predominance of Muslims (93 per cent). And alcohol is banned, so there was going to be no party at Kadmat.
Lines of separation
We were in the deep wide open for the better part of two days. Each time one came out of the cloistered cabins on to the deck, there was this sense of from here to eternity that was more beckoning that looming: nothing but deep blue stretched all the way to the horizon; at night, it looked black and you could see the white surf riding the gentle crests.
The first lines of separation -- between the sea and the emerald isles that emerge out of the blue, all too suddenly -- were three colours of blue: brilliant aquamarine, clear sea green, and the honest-to-God blue that we all associate the sea with.
To connect kadmat has no port. We docked half a nautical kilometre away from the endless coconut palms-fringed shore, and piled into rubber boats. By the time we emptied on to the beach and were handed out a green coconut each, everyone was frantically powering on their mobile phones. In an age where India is most discernible by its cellphone usage and this great urgency among Indians to talk, this was probably the only place in the country where even BSNL -- yes, the one that ‘Connects India’ -- doesn’t have signal.
“You get it in fits and starts,” pointed out the island’s only STD/ISD booth operator, “But you have to go to one particular end of the island and, of course, you have to be lucky.”
I don’t have a BSNL connection, so I stood in line along with 20 others to get access to the one phone in the booth. I too had this great urge to talk to somebody, even if it was for a minute, talk about what it was like to be out in the open. I wanted to say something as pretentiously pompous as, “Here, only the splash of the waves breaks the sound of silence: take that in while you negotiate traffic at the circus in Connaught Place.” But I ran out of cerebral floss 45 minutes later -- which was when I realised that there were still seven people, who also wanted to talk, ahead of me.
Other than being claustrophobic about private spaces, I’m also singularly averse to adventure tourism, so I chickened out of snorkeling (a Water Sports Institute has been set up here) and plain vanilla swimming (there’s a particularly nice spot for the purpose, tucked away next to a wooden pier) that a lot of others were going for with gusto.
Some others were hiring scooties and going biking down the 10-km length of Kadmat (evidently, the width is, at no point, more than 500 metres) while I settled for a safer option: a ride in a ‘glass-bottomed’ boat. Below the sea level, there were the corals, and around us there seemed to many more colours of blue than the initial three that I’d noticed from the ship.
Sea shells, sea shore
Life on the island (that is home to around 6,000 locals, mostly Malayali Muslims) is almost entirely dictated by the whimsical waters. Low tide is when the island folk -- mostly the younger lot -- scamper out, sit on the beaches that aren’t entirely white but close, and stare at the sea.
I was being the shell-collector along with a journo ‘just friend’, when a bunch of kids bounded across to me and insisted on making friends. They spoke Malayalam, a smattering of Hindi with a few words of English thrown in (there’s a proper school on the island). I prodded them on: they told us they loved Shah Rukh Khan, and that some of them had been to Mumbai, but, no, no one missed being part of the big city -- or the mainland for that matter. “Let me take a break and take pictures of you with them,” offered my friend. “I can’t bear to translate twisted Malayalam words into Hindi or English any more.”
And high tide is when the beach bums all go rushing back home as the water rushes on to the beaches and tanks up the coastline.
I left Kadmat when the tides were hungry. I got into the last rubber boat that ferried us from the island back to the ship. It was a rough ride back across choppy waters, a lot like turbulence, and there was one time when one paranoid journalist thought our boat was going to sink.
Well, of course, it didn’t. But as we turned our back on Kadmat, somewhere inside me there was that sinking feeling.