Continued from the Andaman Chronicles, part I ….
central tower from which radiate the five wings of the Cellular Jail or the dreaded Kala Pani, dating back to the colonial past of India. Originally, the prison had seven rows of three storey buildings radiating from the central tower. History has it that, in 1942 when Japan invaded the island, they drove out the British and took over the prison, to imprison the same Britishers. Two of the seven wings were supposedly demolished during that time.
A small detour awaited us on our right. A peek at the execution room. Newly painted in a funny shade of green, the old rafter on the ceiling had a new canary yellow noose, made from a nylon rope, hanging from it. The dreaded Kala Pani was never known to have had any prisoner hanged, said the guide, so the noose never had the chance to taste a freedom fighter’s neck snap under its pressure. We breathed easy and walked out of the small room with the green wooden walls and cheap vinyl floor.
Once out in the large courtyard, we crossed colourful turbaned men, women in bright Rajasthani ghaghras, a bus load of Telegu speakers, a few Bengali families from Calcutta, a newly wed couple posing for their camera in front of a prison cell. We left them behind and made our way up the stairs of the central tower that leads to the prison cells. If I may, this is what we do and would ask you to do, only if you are like us, who love to get a feel of a place, but in solitude, away from the other tourists, their bags full of chaos and flashing cameras.
Don’t go where the crowd wants to take you, take smaller steps, and fall back. By the time they, the people who rushed up the stairs to go ahead of you, have reached the second floor, to crowd the cell that housed Veer Savarkar, you will find you have reached the first floor. Walk out of the stairwell and walk out into opening that runs down on your right and left as two corridors. Two iron gates block off the entrance to the cells on this floor. Chances are that you will find them unlocked, but bolted. Feel free to walk in. Walk along the monotonous corridor, with long barred windows on one side. On the other side, a white wall runs next to you, interrupted in equal intervals by black 3’x7’ iron gates. That’s where history is standing still, right behind those ominous bars, waiting for you to come by and listen to the stories. Each of those gates opens into a 6’x8’ prison cell with a skylight high up on the rear wall for ventilation. Once you enter the cell, walls close in upon you. These were the cells that used to house hundreds of political prisoners condemned to the Kalapani for treason and conspiracy against the British Raj. Because the crowd has already left you behind, you can hear the walls whispering, the fresh coats of paints as if crack to reveal the dreary gray walls of the past and tell you tales of young lives, who raised their heads to revolt against the Britishers, banished to rot within these walls.
The rest of the tour of the prison premises did not take too long. Veer Savarkar’s cell, on the second floor, was the most crowded, as everybody needed to read the plaque on the wall, train their cameras at it and get a share of the historic dust on their forehead off the hallowed floor. A climb up a couple of steep flights of stairs took us up to the terrace that look out on to the sea. The breezy afternoon sky was once again gathering clouds; a shrill whistle blew out in one corner, signaling that it was time for the premises to shut down for the evening. And we found ourselves out on the streets of Port Blair, slightly wet from the drizzle that fell steadily. It was too soon to go back to the hotel and retire. It wasn’t even dark. Our choices were to drive around town, look at a few of the beaches or to shop for local handicrafts at Aberdeen Bazaar. Friends had warned us that evenings on the islands do not promise much in terms of ‘night life’. And we were not particularly looking for entertainment, apart from dinner, but later.
We chose to drive around. The roads in parts of Port Blair are hilly and run parallel to the sea. Roll down the window, let the breeze play with your hair, smell the sea. Keep driving along the road, stop at the promenade, watch the lazy waves or drive straight down to Corbyn’s Cove, a quaint beach and the prettiest in Port Blair. There is precious else one can do here, on these islands. And this is the most precious part of the trip. The sea, the breeze, the fresh air and the silence broken in places by the sounds of waves, wind rushing through leaves, a car or two rushing home – that’s about it. For everything else you can go anywhere else in the world.
Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day ….