The Islands of Adventure
Present day Andamans offers scenic beauty as well as a peek into its chequered past
The evening of November 8, 2016 was probably the worst time to land in an unknown place with unusable cash on your hands.
My friends and I were sitting in a bayside restaurant at the Fortune Resort Bay Island in Port Blair, sipping a drink, when the first lot of WhatsApp and text messages gatecrashed the party. “What nonsense!” was the first thought as the news of the demonetisation came in. It was only when the midnight gong struck that the magnitude of the crisis hit us. In the morning, it was disconcerting to discover that the money you had could not buy you anything.
Despite accommodation at the Resort (the Andamans has many resorts dotting its main islands), we had booked ourselves into the GO’s Mess, Police Headquarters, thanks to our friends. The transit house for police officers is perched on a hill overlooking the serene Andaman Sea on three sides.
I notice that I have jumped far ahead. The journey from Kolkata (flights from and to Delhi stop over in Kolkata) was unusually enlightening with a pilot in the neighbouring seat. He explained quite a few aspects about flying to the Andamans. That the plane had to carry extra fuel just in case there was a need to go around and fly back in case of any emergency. Bad weather over the Andamans is certainly an emergency.
It is extremely difficult to land at the Veer Savarkar International Airport in inclement weather because the runway is unidirectional—planes land and take off in the same direction, whatever be the wind conditions.
He also threw a few nuggets about how safe and free of crime the island is. Two cars in a minor scrape could result in an entire police station turning up since they had nothing much to solve by way of crime. Driving or walking through the streets of Port Blair will tell you why. The residents are unflappable, polite and hospitable. An innate sense of self-discipline means that there is hardly any litter on the roads. You won’t hear a car driver honking in anger. It was a big change from Delhi.
The first stop for any tourist to Port Blair is inevitably the Cellular Jail. For us, it was probably because it was a short walk from the guest house. “You must catch the evening light and sound show,” said the assistant manager, adding, “I shall get the tickets for you.” Declining his kind offer politely, we walked up to the Jail. Lit up like a Christmas tree, the Cellular Jail at night is at its eye-catching best. A tribute to those imprisoned here by the ‘barbaric’ British, the sound and light show is the highlight. The commentary had its dramatic pauses and the lights and shadows were intriguing as the events of those tumultuous months and years played out.
A taste of Port Blair
Morning walks in Port Blair are blissful. You can walk down to Aberdeen Jetty and feed the pigeons as they flutter madly around you; all quite, restful and relaxing. Or you could walk up to Aberdeen Bazaar with its Clock Tower. We spent most of our second day driving around the city enjoying the sights. The Samudrika Marine Museum and the Anthropological Museums are worth a visit. This was followed by a bit of shopping at the Sagarekha Emporium (they were accepting Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes). One can go up to Mount Harriet (15 km from Port Blair) for a breath-taking view of the city.
A trip down to Corbyn’s Cove offers you a variety of water sports and jet scooter rides into the ocean. It is a scenic drive down to the Cove with the sea alongside the road and the waves spraying passers-by. At Corbyn’s Cove you can spot a couple of World War II bunkers built by the Japanese when they occupied the islands around 1942. These islands were the only Indian territory to come under Japanese occupation during the war. The city also served as the headquarters of the Azad Hind government under Subhas Chandra Bose in 1943-44.
We had the irrepressible Chelian driving us around, talking non-stop about his family, waving at friends as they passed by, cursing a biker who brushed past our car and speaking into his mobile phone at frequent intervals, all the while helpfully pointing out places of interest along the way.
Port Blair was not always the HQ of the Andamans. That honour went to the desolate Ross Island which the British chose as the administrative headquarters of the islands. For 85 years, this was known as the Paris of the East till the Japanese captured it in 1941. The bunkers are a reminder of that invasion. However, the people of the island were evacuated months before the Japanese sailed in because of an earthquake. Many left for Port Blair. From what can be deduced from the ruins of Ross Island today, its past was no less than opulent.
Ross Island is a short hop across Port Blair in a speed boat. In its heyday, the Island had bazaars, a bakery, a printing press, grand ballrooms and an even grander residence for the Commissioner, its own water treatment plant, tennis courts, hospital, swimming pools and what was once a magnificent presbyterian church. Today, the island is home to peacock and innumerable herds of deer and other animals. The deer walk in and out of the forest calmly mingling with tourists.
Ross Island’s other attraction is the woman who talks to animals. Anuradha Rao has a way with the deer and peacocks on the island. One can spot her animatedly talking to the deer gathered around her as she takes tourists for a walk around the island.
Ross Island has its own light and sound show in the evenings that plays out the glorious past of the island in the amphitheatre. Nobody can stay back on the island at night. As darkness falls and one heads back to Port Blair, the mind’s eye can see the lights come on in a bustling city inhabited by graceful ladies and gentlemen in 19th century finery getting ready for the night life.
There were other spots that one could have visited had demonetisation not come in the way. The unfinished to-do list includes visiting Havelock Island, Jolly Buoy Island, Barren Island (which houses India’s only active volcano) and experience a bit of snorkelling and scuba diving. Until next time.
M Venkatesh is co-founder and festival director, Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival