RSS

X Files

I had thought that new the millennium had archived Scully, Mulder, aliens, the Smoking Man and the X-Files.
Don’t get me wrong, for I had always been a X-Files believer – followed every episode till I realized that the conspiracies were getting too predictable and we were all asking the same ‘will they, won’t they’ (Scully and Mulder) question more than following the trail of where the story took us. And I confess, somewhere down the road, I had lost my faith and X-files had lost an avid follower.

And yet here I sit, trying to look busy in front of the laptop propped on my lap, clicking away furiously in trying to key in this tiny post, while the sassy 12 going on 13 is riveted to the idiot box, watching X-Files. This is a recent addiction that has appeared out of nowhere or perhaps because the father had expressed his discontent  about her keenness to watch horror movies. Thus her first reaction to X-Files was thus, ‘there’s no horror in X-Files, it’s sci fi, then why can’t I watch it?’ Round one, Daddy-0, daughter-1.

I for one never imagined that the oh-so-nineties X-Files would have any appeal on these fantasy guzzling, gizmo loving next gen kids fed on the iPads, iPods, androids and computer generated imagery. But there she is, glued to the screen, gulping down science fiction, X-Files style. It of course makes her sci fi loving mother quite happy that finally the brat has let go of her ‘I love only fantasy and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I live’ belief and has embraced sci fi. But I would have been happier if she was reading a book (yes, I know I am THAT old fashioned) rather than watching it on tv.

So I casually slipped in this line, ‘if you look you might still find a copy of the book, X-Files, in the book case.’

Now it is time to turn the book case upside down, looking for the book. And I am dreaming of invading a bookshop in search of science fiction. Books.

Advertisements
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

Her story. Our story.

From my TOI blog : Freeze Frame

She is still alive and she is still willing to live. Her sodomized, gangrenous intestines have been removed surgically and yet her heart feebly beats on. Her body has started to reject antibiotics so she has been going through more surgeries and yet she whispers on ‘I want to live’. Her wounds don’t allow her to breathe on her own, she has been put back on the ventilator and yet she wants those who raped and brutalized her to be punished. She continues to will and continues to live. Her battered body continues to fight because of her unbroken spirit. That is her story.

I find myself in angry tears. Questions crowd my mind and judgment. ‘How is she still alive? What keeps her heart beating? Is it not better that she dies than live in such pain? Will her death put out the flicker of rage in us? Will the men who desecrated her body and tried to batter her spirit be let off with little or no punishment because of the lack of stricter laws? I have suddenly felt a stirring in me. A part of me that I had thought had died a long time ago has come alive.

As a girl, as a woman, I had been told that I have the right to live freely. But have I really lived freely? The answer does not please me. I realize that all these years, in the name of living freely in my city, in my own country I have only made compromises with myself. I have been made to feel embarrassed of being a girl. Even before I could understand that my little body was changing, that I was growing up, groping hands and elbows have told me that I was not a little girl any more. Men and older boys at busy street corners, crowded markets, on buses and trams have stared and ogled, passed jeering, lewd comments, tried to touch and stealthily touched – a touch that spread a feeling of hatred and fear as it told me that I would have to hide myself and my body, be embarrassed, be ashamed and feel guilty.  .

Though enraged I walked on without a word. Later, I dressed more conservatively, though in vain, in the hope that nobody would taunt me or make passes at me. I walked faster on occasions when young men on bikes suddenly stopped and tried to whisper lewd nothings into my ears. I have on occasion entered a shop and waited till the man or men who had followed me have walked away after waiting outside the shop for me to emerge. I changed routes ever so often and took long detours to avoid ‘unsafe’ alleys, even in the daytime.

On one occasion I changed buses, because a man taking advantage of the crowd around him tried to expose himself in front of me. I got off the bus at the next busy intersection, had waited very close to a group of men and women who looked ‘respectable’ and caught another bus, all the while looking over my shoulder to see whether the man had followed me and then frantically looking around for a man or a woman I could approach if this man accosted me. Was I scared? Yes. Did I try changing anything? Yes, the next day onward I carried a bigger bag and a broader dupatta and took a more circuitous route home. I remember, in my younger days, furtive instructions being passed on to me by my older cousin sister or my mother to steer clear of a certain relative or family friend, a guidance I respected and abided by, though wondering what may have caused this.

The few times I did pluck up the courage to protest, to question the ‘respectable’ face behind the groping hands I found myself surrounded by a sea of poker faces, my fellow human beings, standing next to me, listening to my outrage yet deaf and mute to their surrounding, ensconced in their little bubble that cocooned them and kept them safe with the thought that ‘it’s not happening to me, so it’s not my problem’.

Those were days of growing up in a gray city of repressed men; days, when I was supposed to rejoice in the spirit of carefree youth. Were they? Alas! By the time I was in my early 20s, I had resigned to the fact that compromise was an essential part of growing up and living as a woman in a big, decaying, old city.

Now, after close to fourteen years of having survived three other cities, including Delhi and several countries, each of which left a few scars in my life, I have learned my lessons well. I know my limits, I know how to stay out of trouble, I know how to stay safe, I know I have to make certain compromises if I want to continue to enjoy myself without exposing myself to potential harm. I know that no one is safe – little girls, boys, married women, even the elderly – can fall prey to the viscous lust of these depraved creatures for whom it all seems to be child’s play.

So where did my tears come from today? Had they not dried up a long time ago? Why does the state of this unnamed girl who was raped, battered and left to die make me so angry? Why now? Why do I want anything to change? What is it that is forcing me to step out of my safety bubble and feel this outrage again? Is it the way she had been brutalized?

I know why. It’s her ‘never say die’ spirit and her incessant fight, even in her darkest moments, which tell me that I gave up even before I thought of putting up a fight. Her story tells me that I compromised too soon. She has razed the inhibitions that I have been living under for the better part of my life. Even in her defeat, her brutal assault at the hands of these beasts who call themselves men, she has taught me that there is no shame; there is no defeat; there should never be any compromises made; that life is worth living despite the barbs and arrows that fate unwittingly throws at one. Salute!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

The God Factory of Kolkata

Read it on my TOI Blog, Freeze Frame.

Have you ever wondered where God is created? Is there a factory that makes them as per order? There is such a factory, where men toil through the year to create deities out of straw and clay, in the heart of an aging metropolis.

Let me take you there, to the graying city, standing by the mighty Hooghly River. The five day festival of the Durga Puja has just drawn to a close. The lights are yet to be taken down; streets still look festive with themandaps standing tall; some of the popular Barowarior community pujas are yet to immerse the idols; the schools are still in the middle of their Puja vacation and the newspapers have just started their post-puja circulation. The city is stretching its arms as it emerges from the throes of week-long festivity, too tired and almost reluctant to return to the proverbial ‘grind’, still hung over from the culinary excesses, late nights, pandal hopping and all the madness that surrounds the 5-days of Durga Puja. But the God factory, which was abuzz a fortnight ago with moulds, straw, clay, paints, glitters, laces, colourful fabric, roles of fibre hair – adding last minute touches to the Dashabhuja Devi Durga and her children, is still busy. The wheels keep turning, men keep toiling, preparing the clay, mixing colours, dying fibres, painting hands, feet, faces – the factory is busy rolling out more Gods for the ‘baro mase tero parbon’(the proverbial thirteen festivals round the twelve months in a year) in Bengal.

  

Lets step into one of those small rooms, that line the narrow, ancient alley. A big pedestal fan whirs away in the darkening room. A naked bulb lends light to a section of the room, where a man is hunched over a roll of tightly wound fabric. His deft fingers have already given shape to the beautiful face, now he is bent over giving final touches to the lotus like eyes. His apprentices have already left for the day. Neatly tied stacks of hay, feminine structures crafted out of bamboo and straw line an adjacent wall, the day’s task been accomplished. Standing a little further away are clay figures of various incarnations of the Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and other gods and goddesses, in various stages of making and repair.

Tomorrow his apprentices would be back to plaster a few more of the straw and bamboo structures with the silty, gray clay that comes from the neighbouring ghats of the mighty Hooghly. Of late with the late retreat of the monsoon, the struggle to dry the idols has only become harder. The pedestal fan whirs in agreement. And suddenly the eye having accustomed to the darkness follows an ember glow in the darkest corner of the room, and a closer look reveals the contours of a few finished heads of idols being dried over the dying ember of a coal oven. In a few days time, when the idols would be suitably dried, the Potua or the artisan would start painting the figures. The most important part of this creative process is however the painting of the eyes of the deity. Only the most senior and the most skillfulpotua is responsible for painting the eyes of the deity, thereby breathing life into the clay idol.

  

The workshop we stand in now, is one of the workshops of the god making industry, nestled in a narrow, dingy alley of a network of many such serpentine lanes, which criss-cross each other, in the heart of the aging metropolis, Calcutta. History pegs the age of this neighbourhood of potters or Kumortuli, as over 400 years, a hundred years older than the erstwhile capital of the British Empire. During the days of Bengal Presidency, when the British administrators were planning the layout of their new capital, they built the Fort William by the bank of the river Hooghly, which displaced a lot of the inhabitants of the local village. The displaced people were rehabilitated to other parts of the then presidency town that consisted of Sutanuti, Gobindopur and Kolikata. The ‘Indian quarters’ of the presidency town were largely concentrated in the two villages of Sutanuti and Kolikata. While richer section started to settle in areas like Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata, the worker sections were allotted areas according to their vocation closer to the ghats of the mighty Hooghly river. Eventually these areas came to be named according to the profession of the people who lived there. So Ahiritola was the neighbourhood of milkmen, Kolutolla ofKolus or oil producers, Suriparah of wine sellers, Muchipara for the shoe smiths and cobblers and Kumortuli, a neighbourhood of potters.

The potters who earned a meager livelihood out of making clay pots, slowly started to sculpt images of deities for the various Hindu religious festivals that were becoming popular during the British Raj. The most prominent of the festivals of Bengal, of course, was and still is the Durga Puja. Potters from the neighbourhood were hired by the rich Babus, in those days, to live in their houses and sculpt the deity in the thakurdalan or the courtyard attached to the ancestral temple, of the Babus.

The recently departed writer, Shree Sunil Gangopadhyay once wrote “In those days, instead of buying the idols from the market at Kumortuli, families invited the kumor or artisan home to stay as a house guest weeks before the Puja, during which time he sculpted the idol. The idol at our Puja was known for its magnificent size. It used to be over 10 feet tall. Every morning as the kumor started his work, we children gathered around him and gaped in awe as he gradually turned a fistful of straw and a huge mass of clay into a perfectly formed, larger-than-life figure.”

  

Around the 1930’s, with the freedom struggle stoking patriotic fire in native hearts, in Bengal Durga puja started to gain prominence as a community festival. And the potters slowly found themselves orders to sculpt the Dashabhuja out of straw and clay, for the autumnal festival.

Ever since, this nighbourhood of potters has become the workshop of the God-makers. They say that God rested on the seventh day, after Creation was complete. But the God-makers of Calcutta know no rest. The festival season is on. Come Monday, lorries would make a beeline outside their alleys for idols of the Goddess Laxmi. Meanwhile, the apprentices have started to create the basic straw and bamboo structure of the other incarnation of Durga, Ma Kali, for Kali puja is round the corner. The wheels at the God Factory have to keep turning as there will be no seventh day when the God makers would get a day of rest after creating God.

  

Picture courtesy :

Saraswati – filmapia.com

Soil – calcuttawalks.com

Soil being mixedhttp://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Asia/India/East/West_Bengal/Kolkata/photo741105.htm

Flickr.com

Flickr.com

flickr.com

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on October 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Not a country for little girls?

Read it on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame.

Baby Ahuti died of cardiac arrest on Monday. But that was not the real reason of her death. Her little heart could not bear the trauma of her battered little body. She had “multiple skull fractures, broken ribs, a dislocated neck and bruised limbs”. The parents had claimed that her injuries were from a fall. Though the doctors investigating her case had surmised that the three month old’s head may have been bashed hard against something hard, perhaps even the floor, causing her soft skull to fracture. Her twin sister had evidently died under mysterious circumstances, when she was just a 12 days old.

Another child, Tanaaz Sayyed, aged two was reported dead just two months prior to this. Cause of death, ‘suffering relentless physical abuse at the hands of her parents’.

The year started with baby Falak succumbing to her injuries. She had been abandoned with ‘a fractured skull, broken arms, and human bite marks all over her body and cheeks that had been branded by a hot iron’. Baby Shirin, baby Afreen and many more just added to the list of girls who were brought to hospitals around the country this year, battered, bludgeoned, bruised and left to die.

The irony of the situation is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. These are cases that have been reported because the culprits have gotten caught or because their brutality was too many to ignore by the purveyors of health or the law. The truth is  “India lacks rigid and streamlined guidelines to detect, diagnose, treat and solve child battering because the family is supposed to be sacrosanct and private and external factors are not allowed to intervene even in situations that might end in tragedy. There is no specific law under which parents can be taken into custody on suspense…. in India, there is no specific law under which parents battering their children could be booked unless there was concrete proof of the crime”.

In the comfort of my home, a simple Google search fills up pages with data; data on how people killed their infants because they were girls.

The pages bring back stories I would hear from my grandmother, stories from her childhood and before. There was a time when the news of a girl born in a family was never shared with the world outside. What would later be shared was the news that the child was still born or died of natural causes minutes after their birth. The little girl, in reality, instead of seeing the light of day would have had salt forced down her tiny throat till she choked. Severe dehydration would eventually lead to hypernatremia leading to brain edema and coma. Her frail body would then be anointed with chandan, wrapped in muslin and buried in keeping with Hindu funeral rites.

I’m once again back to the multiple browser windows open in front of me. One page leads on to more pages, one story links to many more. Another little girl killed at birth or within the first few months joins a list of many who have gone before her. Pages fill up with reports, news stories about little girls badly beaten up, sexually assaulted, abandoned or left to die. Countless stories on why this was never a country for little girls and how the future still looks bleak.

In one related report I chance upon Gita Aravamudan, author of the book Disappearing Daughters (2007), who writes that since traditional methods of female infanticide (feeding the child salt, drowning the child in a bucket of water) could be traced back, people adopt more inhuman and novel ways of killing their baby. Wrapping a child in wet towels right after birth to induce pneumonia, feeding a new-born alcohol to induce diarrhoea are common practice….

But why does she have to die again and again? The answer is not that simple. The SUB GROUP REPORT on the Girl Child in the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012), by Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India reveals disturbing trends: “The sharp decline in female sex ratios over the years suggests that female foeticide and infanticide might be primarily responsible for this phenomenon followed by general neglect of the girl child The sex ratio has been dwindling even in States like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat which are supposed to be economically prosperous. Female infanticide has been reported from parts of Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The magnitude of girl child mortality is reflected from the fact that every year, about 12 million girls are born in India; a third of these girls die in the first year of  their life; three million, or 25 per cent, do not survive to see their fifteenth birthday. The child mortality rate between 0-4 years for girl child is 20.6%, two percent more than that of boys (18.6%).”

Table: The Human Development Index of the Girl Child in India:

Indicator Males Females Persons
Population (0-6) 81,911,041 75,952,104 157,863,145
Sex Ratio (0-6) 927/1000
IMR (April 2006) 58
MMR 407
Child Mortality Rate (0-4) (2000) 18.6% 20.6% 19.5%
Anemia (15-19) 56%
Literacy rate 75.26 53.67 64.84
Gross Drop Out Rate
Class 1-5 35.85 33.72 34.89
Class I-VIII 52.28 53.45 52.79
Class I-X 60.72 64.97 62.58

What is all the more alarming is that a significant number of studies have conclusively shown that there is little correlation between the number of such incidents with the lack of education or wealth – the common belief – and that is true for most parts of the country. But if this is indeed the case, what will make such atrocities stop? How can we enlighten the people of this country that our girls deserve better; that they are to be treasured, nurtured and cherished and not be the subjects of such heinous crimes? Is the solution in public awareness campaign, demonstrations, public interest litigations or in developing a water-tight legal structure that seeks to make an example of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes? Whatever the case may be, may better sense prevail and let’s get down to setting things right, sooner than later, or we will have very few girls to call our own.

Photo credit: newstopnight.in

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Forgetful me

Read it on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame.

‘I am prone to momentary lapses of memory and at times it gets really embarrassing for me. Are you still sure? Think about it.’ The warning came on the morning of the first day of Baishakh, almost a decade and half ago. But that year the day had another purpose other than turning over the Bengali new year. He and I were also getting married the same day.

He had requested that he would choose the date, with the refrain that ‘that way, I’ll never forget our wedding anniversary.’ Either it was too late to back out or I was too much in love with him (and in retrospect, I think it was the former than the latter). Anyway, I gave myself no reason to reason with myself, to look back or think. I just took the leap. I draped the fuchsia Benarasi my mother had lovingly chosen for the occasion, allowed her to fuss over my hair, garlands, ornaments that had been passed down from generations, let her cry a little and basically have everything her way for, perhaps, this would be the last time. I had boldly signed on the dotted lines, next to his scrawl and was his better half, about a half an hour ceremony later. Social paraphernalia had followed a month later. The fairy tale had begun with a very brief courtship, a period not long enough to gauge the depth of his ‘momentary lapses of memory’. The nature and the depth of his ‘forgetfulness’ manifested itself once we had moved lock, stock and barrel to the Bengali ghetto in Delhi.

A memoir, if ever written on our life together, would definitely start with this paragraph: “Their new life was full of hurdles. He forgot his wife’s birthday. The wife took it in her stride and brushed it aside as a ‘minor’ glitch. He forgot other ‘important’ dates and she started maintaining an annual calendar of events that hung next to the dining table. She keyed in ‘important’ numbers in his phonebook, updated his address books, created files that lined the guestroom shelves to store forgotten bills/ prescriptions/ correspondence/ insurance papers etc, tried to remember the names of faces that she met for the first time so that next time he knew who he was talking to and much more that eventually became part of their history.”

    

One winter evening, I spotted fresh roses at the tiny flower-shop in our neighbourhood “Second market”, in CR Park, and left him behind to chat up with the florist from Bankura and haggle over prices. It did not take long to get a good bargain for a dozen long stemmed roses. But something seemed odd. Suddenly my questions were not met with his usual monosyllabic replies. So I turned to look for my husband. There he was, standing a few shops away, slightly blurry because of the fog that was slowly descending upon the dimly lit street, talking to a tall, elderly gentleman, in a long Kashmiri housecoat. I walked up to join the animated conversation.

‘And how are the daughters? Hope mashima is keeping well, too? I don’t see you taking strolls down our lane anymore.’ he was asking the gentleman, who had surprise clearly written on his aging face.

‘They are fine, but your mashima is still not used to the Delhi cold, even after all these years’, came the reply, in a halting, confused tone. ‘And I prefer to stay indoors these days. My old bones can’t take the biting cold either.’

Having found me standing quietly by his side and discreetly pulling him by his sweater from the back, he seemed to get the message. So he broke off with a, ‘Okay Roy Mesomoshai, do take care.’

A barrage followed. ‘What was that all about? Why were you pulling at my sweater? I can see you’ve got your roses. So? What do you want now? Did you forget your purse again? Need more money? What was it? Haven’t met Roy mesomoshai in a long time, so I was talking to him.’

So I had to tell him.

‘That was NOT Roy mesomoshai! Have you even forgotten what he looks like? You were chatting with a complete stranger!’

‘No? But Roy Mesomoshai always wears a Kashmiri housecoat and is as tall. He even wears a similar Nepali cap in winter. How can you be so sure? That was him!’ And only a visit to Roy Mesomoshai, who lived two houses away, allayed his doubts. ‘Minor glitch’ I sighed.

And such minor glitches continued. He would often come home from office with a bag of Salim’s Kebabs, even after being told that I had already cooked dinner (which in retrospect seems like an intentional lapse of memory, as those would be the exact days I’d cook vegetables like bhindi, bNadhakopi or pumpkin). He recognized faces and was capable of continuing a meaningful conversation but their names failed him, noticed things which were almost in his face much later than he was expected to. I was still not worried.

But when it resulted in him missing flights, both domestic and international, forgetting laptops at airport lounges, blackberries and phones in taxis (that too, on foreign shores), our driver with the car at the meeting venue and taking a ride back with his colleague or asking me the name of the person he had just finished a well-informed conversation with – it worried me slightly. You know the kind of thought that goes, ‘he might forget me at a bookshop some day’. That’s about it.

And also the fact that in trying to keep up with his forgetfulness, my gray cells are growing lazy. Of late I set up reminders on the Blackberry to remind me about things to do, appointments to keep, set up alarms to reach on time, maintain a diary of my daily chores, fill up the refrigerator with to-do-post-its etc.

But this is what it has come to pass. Just the other day, I was so excited about finally watching one of Soumitro Chatterjee’s plays in Bombay. I bought premium tickets two months in advance, alerted the husband and made him mark off that time of the evening as busy on his blackberry, marked it on my calendar et al and so that we both remembered, I even put the tickets in the husband’s ‘important docs’ drawer. And we were all set for, Monday, 9th of July to arrive.

Something struck me on Sunday evening. Perhaps the husband’s remark ‘how could have they planned a play for a Monday evening? They’re typically either on a Saturday or a Sunday. I’ll have to miss a conference call…’ I pulled out the tickets from his drawer. The date on the tickets read ‘Saturday, 7th July, 2012’.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Andaman Chronicles, part III

“Leisure,” he said. “If people only knew! It’s the most priceless thing a man can have and they’re such fools they don’t even know it’s something to aim at. Work? They work for work’s sake. They haven’t g o t the brains to realize that the only object of work is to obtain leisure.”  (The Lotus Eater, W. Somerset Maugham)

Life on the islands is a strange life, redolent with a sleepy, listlessness – beyond the grasp of a wi-fi connected urban dweller like me. The sun, the moon and the winds are the only things that affect people and perhaps the change of seasons. With no trains to catch apart from the occasional ferry to other islands or a bus to a distant part of a larger island, 3 daily newspapers, a few radio stations and limited satellite television invasion, time seems to stand still here. Day begins at the crack of dawn and ends with dusk. I could almost hear Maugham say it with a slow chuckle “That’s one of the delights of …., that there’s never any hurry.” (The Lotus Eater, W. Somerset Maugham)

   

The realization, that the connotation of time on the islands varies a great degree from our clock-bound mainland life, hit upon us when we asked for a mid morning cup of tea at a roadside tea stall on Havelock, at 10.30 am. By the time we had reached the row of stalls lining the tiny bend on the road by beach number 1, adjacent to the main jetty, the big, noisy, brass kerosene stove had been turned down and the owner was busy washing used glasses. The battered, much used tins of tea, sugar and milk powder had gone back to their places on a shelf lining the sooty wall.

To my eager ‘cha hobe?’ (Do you have tea?) he returned a cold ‘bikele charter somoy abar cha paben.’ (Tea will only be available at four in the afternoon, again) without looking up and went back to cleaning the broad tin platform around his stove. Though it defied all logic for the always-connected-anytime-is-tea-time urban dweller – it made perfect sense for the islander. Thus my rather curious ‘why?’ was met with a half mocking, low laugh o which he added that he had been serving tea from four in the morning and this was his time to take a bath. He would come back at eleven-thirty to prepare and serve lunch till 3. Four thirty till six was tea time on the island. quod erat demonstrandum.

It did put a semi colon to our tea-plans for the late morning, but we were not surprised. We had been meeting with a similar fate for the last few days on the islands, both in Port Blair as well as in Havelock, whenever we were out looking for the much recommended seafood restaurants. A few seafood restaurants had come with very high recommendations and Facebook pictures uploaded by enthusiastic friends, to prove the delectable bill of fare. After the first few attempts we realized that life of a restaurant on the islands is largely governed by tourist seasons. So having landed in the Andaman Islands a few weeks after the ‘tourist’ season had waned, we had but very few ‘food’ options to explore. Most highly recommended restaurants had made high profit in summer and shut shop for the ‘dry’ monsoons devoid of the eager hoards of tourist. Some others had closed for the monsoons because their star chefs had left for the mainland on their annual leave. And the hand full of restaurants that still remained open to cash in on the now thinning crowd of tourists, had already wound up a host of services for the slow monsoon ahead. The robust menus promised a lot but the choices were rather lean. “Chicken, you will get everything, Sir. Tiger prawn, small prawns, also – but no King Crabs, Jumbo Prawns or the Lobsters. No good fish also. Wrong season, Sir.” Said a smiling Muthuswamy, almost apologetically, at New Lighthouse Restaurant, in Port Blair.

On day three we had a chance encounter with the new generation, Hindi-speaking, fully clothed Jarwas, along our 50 km long convoyed journey through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve forest as we headed towards the limestone caves hidden behind the mangroves of Middle Andaman. It was a humid day, heavy rain had replaced the drizzle as we changed over from our car to the ferry and then on to a speed boat. A ride through the treacherous bends of the thick mangrove and a trek through the wet tropical forest of the monsoon and we were suddenly entering almost a crack in a stone wall, a whimsical creation of nature, the Limestone caves, tucked away behind tall evergreen trees and later all the efforts were rewarded by tall glasses of fresh lemonade, sold by the locals.

      

It was day four. We tried keeping our foodie hopes afloat for Havelock, as the Makruz, a fast catamaran that takes one to Havelock in one and a half hours, navigated the straits between Great Andaman and Ritchie’s Archipelago.

But even in the days of Google and satellite images, nothing prepares you for Havelock and its white sand beaches. We have been to a few of the most beautiful beaches that line the Indian Ocean. Starting from the white beaches of Seychelles, to driving down parts of the rugged and beautiful coastal road of Oman, a drive down the western coast of Sri Lanka from Negombo to Galle, the pristine beaches of Bintan and some of the famous beaches of Thailand – none of them prepared us for the surprise that waited on Havelock.

      

It felt strange that the beaches of Havelock are known by numbers than names. Beach number one lazily lies adjacent to the Havelock jetty, the shore dotted with small speed boats that set out at dawn to fish and to snorkel. While most of the hotels and resort line up the shore between beach numbers three and five, it is beach number seven that waits patiently for you to arrive. Let me take you to beach number seven a couple of boring paragraphs later.

The first night in Havelock however had plans to ruin it all for us.

First came as a cause of a loud, scared shriek from the bathroom. And the cause was a largish, black scorpion even more scared from having felt the earth shake beneath it as the daughter had stomped her way in, now perched on the wastepaper basket. The brave Bee picks up the wastepaper basket, opens the door and dumps the bin on the grass outside for the scorpion to ease itself out and guess who walks in when no one’s paying attention? A plump toad. Needless to say that even after a lot of chasing the toad around the room, when it had safely ensconced itself under the mini-bar, I was beyond all consolation that the toad was more scared than I was. The hotel ‘house-keeping’ was equally helpful in allaying fears with ‘this is the monsoon, so toads are very common, and they tend to hop in if they find the door open’. It, in fact, nailed it for me and we first changed our cottage and then changed resorts. The next resort, one of the premiums on the island, passed my ‘strict’ inspections.

Beach number seven, popularly known as Radhanagar Beach, is one of the best white sand beaches of the archipelago and one of the 10 best beaches according to Nat Geo. A couple of sign boards warned the ignorant about the beach being infested with salt water crocodiles and several other dangerous creatures.

But once on the beach, everything else ceased to matter much. The innumerable shades of blue of the water that changed with the colour of the moody sky, the broad white stretch of sand, the lush forest that hugged the shore; the afternoon slowly mellowed into evening. The pockets of almost zero to very low mobile connectivity, the thick darkness of the night lit in places by a house or two, a car or two rushing homewards, glow worms lighting up in the depth of the distant darkness, the incessant drone of an orchestra of toads and crickets, the rush of wind through the trees and the drizzle that murmured to the leaves – at seven in the evening, it was night in Havelock and all was well in the islanders’ lives.

Suddenly, in the quiet of that languorous evening that lazily stretched ahead of us, it all made sense; the silence, the darkness, the untethered life, the well defined apartheid between day and night; this life was a mirage that drove us tethered, wired, bound-by-time-and-routine mainlanders in hoards to the island – to chase the ever so elusive leisure, moody blue skies, large expanses of the open sea, fifty shades of blue of the water and fifty one shades of green on shore and a yearning to lead a life of the Lotus Eater. Laze, eat, sleep, gaze at the sea, read a book on a hammock by a sleepy, empty beach, eat, sleep and laze. Perhaps, if I had the will to throw it all up, stop being a train car and not die a scrap iron death…

“Most people, the vast majority in fact, lead the lives that circumstances have thrust upon them, and though some repine, looking upon themselves as round pegs in square holes, and think that if things had been different they might have made a much better showing, the greater part accept their lot, if not with serenity, at all events with resignation. They are like train-cars travelling forever on the selfsame rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron.” (The Lotus Eater, W. Somerset Maugham)

But Maugham’s words rang in my ears “The will needs obstacles in order to exercise its power; when it is never thwarted, when no effort is needed to achieve one’s desires, because one has placed one’s desires only in the things that can be obtained by stretching out one’s hand, the will grows impotent. If you walk on a level all the time the muscles you need to climb a mountain will atrophy” and I chose will over the desire for a life of the Lotus Eater.

Back in Port Blair, it was day seven and the day we were to board our flight. We spent the last one hour before reporting time atop a hill, at the jogger’s park, that overlooked a fraction of the city and the entire air field. We met a group of islanders waiting patiently on the benches that faced the airport, engaged in a lively conversation. An exchange of pleasantries revealed that they came to the park every day without fail, at the same time, to watch the planes come in from the farthest end of the horizon and then take off. And I was happy that I had much more to look forward to after I had boarded the flight and was back in my wired urban life. I could come back, to chase leisure again, on yet another holiday.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

The Andaman Chronicles, part II

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 ….

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Uncategorized