“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.