A chance, spiritual meeting with my origins in Andamans

I wake up in the cottage at Neil Island, with a sense of peace and wellbeing. It is a little past 6am, but already well past sunrise. I had wanted to go to the famed Sitapur beach, just a kilometer or more away, to watch the sun rise majestically as it does over the sea, knowing it would be an experience that would surely nourish my soul and creativity.

Yet knowing by now, after a week’s stay in Andamans, that the sun rose in these parts by 5.15am – I had set my alarm for 6 am. As I need a minimum of 6 hours of sleep a night to upkeep the physical and mental dynamism and optimism I am naturally bestowed with and have been able to retain past midlife. You must identify and balance your physical, emotional, and creative nutritional needs, for optimal results in life.

 We had had a long hectic day the day before, waking early in Havelock Island to check out of the hotel, and drive to the Ferry point after a rushed breakfast of Chola Batura. Then after an hour’s mandatory wait for boarding to commence at the Jetty point, after the incoming Ferry was anchored, passengers offloaded and then cleaned and ready, an hour’s ride to Neil Island.

We had barely checked in at the hotel in Neil and after a change of driver and car through the same owner, had left for Bharatpur beach at 1pm, skipping lunch we did not care for yet. After a couple of hours, without taking any of the water rides this beach abounds in, but soaking in the essence of the place, after a last-minute change of car tyer – the need detected just when we were to get into the car, we drove to the natural coral bridge reaching just before 3pm and the sun on its downward climb. This experience of going out far into sea was soulfully fulfilling, while savored leaning and clutching on to the hand of the very young male guide, my husband following, in spite of slipping on rented waterproof sandals from the shore tea stall as is the practice – over coral and rock, and feeling relieved to have not smashed my ribs, bones and face, leave alone it was with the thought that my flesh would have been an awesome feast for the variety of fish – including those that are used for pedicures worldwide as they nibble away dead skin.

 Later, after an awesome platter of fruit salad, each piece washed and chopped in front of us, also a glass of homemade aam-pora(burnt-mango) sharbat each, that amounted to a   nourishing late lunch, without the heaviness that leads to lethargy, we left for the Laxmanpur beach. Where with a fresh surge of energy, we walked the one kilometer stretch over pristine white sand, munching a paper cone of jhal(masala)-muri, past the white waves crashing over blue-green sea, now draped in a tangerine veil of sunlight, in the direction of the big round ball of orange, slowly dipping into the sea. This beach, displays a charming, heartwarming soul melting, theatrical Sunset.

Over a homemade style dinner of rui(sea) macher jhol, the typical Bengali fish in plentiful gravied curry, with two large slices, along with an assorted veg platter and dal(lentils) with rice, I had a long chat with the owner of the hotel, homestay, or resort – whatever you might like to call it. My north India born and brough up, but Bengali husband, preferred a no-fish meal, neither participated in my animatedly excited discussion about the history of the two Bengals I had been brought up in – east Bengal by virtue of my heritage and west Bengal my domicile since birth.

Then today, I would have another long day ahead, that would include an hour and half’s Ferry ride back to Port Blair, then a rushed check in at the hotel in the heart of town, where we had left our suitcases four days back, before which we would have large ice cream sundaes at the parlor below, then rush off to some more sightseeing past the famed Flag point where it was first unfurled by Netaji in 1943. So, skipping the sunrise at Sitapur beach, in order to get my much-needed sleep seemed the wisest thing to do.

Yet, I knew well, I was not going to leave Neil without a look at Sitapur beach, especially that we were so close to it – although our hired car’s driver of yesterday, the one who picked us up from the hotel for the city-tour refused to include it in the package or to show us a peek of the place we missed this morning, before dropping us at the Jetty on our way out of Neil Island. He was a very polite young Hindi speaking local man who during our drives, could not give any awareness of his identity of his roots, despite my questioning him on his perhaps Tamilian ancestors if not Bengali. He belonged to that 5% of other ethnicities that Neil Island comprises of who simply say they are locals, of which there are no Muslims.

My husband still asleep, I came out of our wooden cottage overlooking a lovely garden, past a small wood shed balcony, all ready to walk down to Sitapur. Just then, noticing a young lady in the adjacent balcony and to my pleasure recognizing her as the woman who had put up a selfie stand very close to the sea at Laxmanpur beach, with the back drop of the sunset and was orchestrating and enacting a photoshoot all by herself, in a long red dress, her long hair flying all around, that she would flirtatiously rein in around her face. I had been amused and charmed enough, even as a woman – to take several photos without going too close and encroaching on her spiritual space and privacy even in a public space.  

I found one of the waiters now gardening and told him I was going for a walk and would come back well in time for breakfast by 9.30am, then check out by 10.30am.

“What would you like for breakfast?” he asked, “whatever you like we can prepare!”

“What is today’s specialty?” I bantered.

“Alu paratha – we make it very well. With curd and pickles.”

“That would be perfect” I replied, knowing the north Indian husband would love it, though I would have preferred a typically Bengali breakfast myself, what with living in a yesteryears East Bengali household – of luchi alu-bhaja or alu-dom and cholar dal, or maybe hing and koraishutoir(peas) kochuri.  All of which he loves just as well, from his own West- Bengal roots.

“How far is the Sitapur beach” I asked, “how long would it take me to go and come.”

“It would be about 3 kilometers for the return walk – it would take you a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes on either way – up or down.”

I was turning around to walk up, when the young lady balancing on a scooty who had been wrapping a long scarf around her head which I had found to be a common practice in the heat when we lived in Chennai, blurted, “I’m going that way. Would you like to come?”

I looked at her, feeling a rush of pleasure riding upon the one I had woken up with already, as I replied, “Yes, yes, surely. It would allow me more time at the beach!”

When you will something, the world conspires to bring it to you easily, I though with so much gratitude, as I wore on her friend’s helmet – incidentally the selfie maiden of last evening, who was originally from Bihar as I was to learn. With whom she was sharing the room adjacent to ours as well as a life in Bangalore, after they passed out from the same engineering institute and remained friends and travel mates, though now working with different companies. My feet dangling on either side, balanced pillion behind her, I feasted my eyes from below my helmet, on the greenery that included a lot of  Joba trees in deep red and every other colour that also thrives on my rooftop in Kolkata, the small and large cottages with the backdrop of the almost translucent blue sky at about 8 am, three hours after sunrise, reminding me also of a typical village of Bengal, like in Murshidabad maybe.

The lady and I got off the scotty at Sitapur and were mesmerized by the alcove view of the sea, like entering a wide cave opening out into the sea – the waves lashing the shore lined by palm trees in a musical serenade to our east Bengali rooted sensibilities. The lady’s family was also originally from East Bengal, but was now settled in Siliguri, the base town on your way to Darjeeling and Gangtok also many others, from where she had come to study and later work in Bangalore.  She is a marine engineer, on a project in the Andamans but having joined a new job and still on an induction of sorts, is still not so caught up in work so can take this long vacation with her friend. They have been in Neil Island to soak up the solitude and beauty, already over a fortnight and intend to be here longer.

At 9.15, though I just did not want to leave this abode of utmost peace and joy at Sitapur, with a puppy basking in it warmly along with us, rolling around at our feet, I had to bid the lady good bye, in leaving her alone in the company of precious heavenly solitude. I had had a very long enlightening chat with her on a variety of topics, before exchanging our Instagram handles. She was in no hurry to get on with life, so why expect her to come back to the hotel with me? What I had loved much about her was she had been very respectful, quite unlike what I notice with the youth of today, who at less than half your age think they know double what you do just by the sheer strength of internet usage since their birth unlike us. Real experiences from living and aging, cannot beat hard core reading – which we of our times and before additionally indulged in, from the lack of internet and television, also real travel which was not so easy and common, leave alone half-baked awareness just from the internet.

Back at the hotel room after a 15-minute slow relishing walk through rural yet well maintained roads, I gave my husband a raving update of my spiritual tryst through this beautiful experience. Also, verbally I introduced him to the two ladies from Bangalore. He and I had a lovely cup of chai brought in by a waiter, sitting in our wood framed open on all sides balcony, that was my first for the day in not having wanted to waste time to get to the beach. Then we had breakfast served under the same shed turned dining place, of last night and cleared up our room and food bills.

The same driver, otherwise a charmingly polite fellow who would not go outside his assigned service, not even out of sheer pride at showing off his small island at an extra cost – with or without asking his car’s owner, and who prided himself of not having any other roots but this island – then arrived shortly, to drive us to the ferry jetty stand, where again it was mandatory to wait an hour in advance like you do for flights, to board the ferry.

*****

We had arrived at Neil Island by noon on the Makruzz ferry from Havelock Island. This ride had not been as picturesque as the one from Port Blair to Havelock. Our driver for the last three days, Nirmal Seal, having met us on arrival at Havelock after I had chosen him from several pushers of taxi services trying to grab our attention – due to his gentlemanly demeanor that stood out, had referred us to his friend here at Neil. Both the friends, or perhaps just business collaborators, had 4 cars plying on either island, that they also let out to young drivers who were just starting on their own journey of an earning life. 

The Havelock driver, Nirmal, as I had chatted up each of the several, I had met in Andamans so far, turned out to be an ex general manager, of a resort, having moved there from Diglipur a town near the Jarawa bastion around Barathang, 8 years back – where he was born, raised, married, also had children and had worked. Then had decided four years back, in Havelock, it was high time to liberate himself from the employment of others, even if it had apparently furnished him more esteem than waiving out to or hawking for prospective passengers for his cabs seemed now. He was, as I was to figure out during my long chats with him, a respectful, but firstly self-respecting man, who was a stickler for discipline and timing. He did not take well to being assigned a driving stint and then kept waiting for you to get onto the back seat of his car. Also, his managerial skills found a way to plan your trips with him – helping you choose and shortlist, from his experience of living there as well as understanding people, picking up cues.

“So, you’re ready” he had remarked ironically to me the first day, after we had kept him waiting an hour over the assigned time, parked at the hotel.

We had been late in settling into the room of the resort we had just checked into, not having estimated some procedural delay and requesting a change of room – for him to take us to the Kala Pathar, and Radhanagar beaches, which we then visited on two consecutive days.

The drive to Elephant beach would be a waste of time and money if we did not wish to indulge in what he thought was frivolous watersports and such activity. But initially he had encouraged us like all drivers’ trend to, because they surely earn a commission on such patronage by their patrons. Like in the case of hotels – their concierge desks give taxi drivers a commission for bringing in walk-in guests. But Nirmal Seal did a quick summersault, realizing we were not interested in typical touristy behavior, and henceforth maintained a wish to show us the more profound truths of Havelock.  What was common among all these drivers as I may sum it up is – they were warm, friendly, disciplined, but above all intelligent.

At Neil Island, as soon as we disembarked, then took the long walk from the Ferry after it was anchored, as promised by Nirmal – we found another Amito. He was casually dressed, much shorter and even more adolescent looking than the Amito who picked us up at Port Blair airport, then drove us around for 3 days in tandem with his elder cousin Pramod Sirdar who took us to Barathang. This rather naïve looking Amito had been bearing a placard with my husband’s name on it. As soon as we indicated that it was us, he was here to pick up, he briskly took our baggage and marched us to his car in the adjacent parking area. It was when  he had swerved out and was well on his way – flanked by picturesque greenery freshly washed by the intermittent rains of the receding rainy season at the end of August , from a call he received from the owner of the car, I was figured out, that he was on hire himself and was not Nirmal’s friend we had been referred to.

All these Bengali men, as 95% of the population on Neil Island, and 75 % on the rest of Andamans are Bengali, who were rather pleased that we were Bengali as well and from Kolkata at that, were enthusiastic conversationalists. They would easily divulge personal details, like we were all long lost cousins. Their grandparents had come to Andamans in the early 1960’s at the onset of the turmoil back home, in what was at the time East Pakistan, liberated in 1971 into Bangladesh. This was what my debut novel Across Borders was all about, in the voice of a 75-year-old Maya. Their stories were akin to that of my parents – as I willingly disclosed to each of the people I had a chat with including the hotel staff, on learning of their roots and this perhaps led to our easy bonding. There were several people I met from Bihar too, particularly Jharkhand, with several families brought in to Barathang over the past over fifty years from there.

The conversation I have had were multifarious. My husband, at best usually mute on these trips, unless he is working on a journalistic story or a book and is then persistently conversationalist, usually tried to diffuse my enthusiastic exchanges with complete strangers. As he thought they were mindless chatter. But would eventually take an interest in the stories, after I had reached some intriguing twist in the plot, especially when I narrated them back in the hotel. I tend to chat, apparently mindlessly – to someone overhearing me, as I strongly believe that the interview style of conversation does not draw out the truths of any life, as I seek for my literary fiction. It works well for non-fiction work, as you must validate your statements, which in my view gives you only half-baked truths of life.

At times Bishwanath would wake up from his naps, after I had well shoved the interesting or mysteriously thrilling experiences as in the case of the first-hand Jarawa stories these drivers would share with me, into my mental drawstring purse, to shut in tight, that would now open on the novel I would work on.  An example of such a conversation, being one with Amito our driver in Port Blair, after he picked us up again after the Havelock and Neil visit. This was after I had listened to a prolonged narration on what a typical day for him is like.

‘The tourists from which part of India are the best in your view?”

“Pune” was the spontaneous reply. 

“Why would you say that?”

“People from Pune are respectful and well behaved. They listen to us – on the rules of the island and are disciplined on timings. They treat us with respect knowing we know.”

“From which place are they the worst?”

“Delhi.”

“In what way?”

“They just do not listen to anything from anyone. They know it all and know best, be it young or old. When we tell them that photography is not allowed in the Jarawa belt for example, they will not comply. Or if we ask them to report at a particular time or not to litter. They just will not listen to a driver. So also, over worked and often exasperated drivers, get into altercations – then it’s all our fault! But we know this place best, isn’t it? And island rules are strict. We can get fined or have our licenses confiscated retrievably!”

“How would you rate the Bengali tourists you meet from Calcutta?”

“Ah! They just want to take it easy. To relax in the hotel a lot and leave late, come back to the hotel late. Do not want to leave early to go to places of interest, to see and learn. We have come on vacation so what’s the need for rules! But maám you can always go back home and relax is it not!”

I thought he was making a wheeled inference to me, as I was resisting to getting out at 6 am daily, though it wasn’t for myself that I was doing so. So I laughed, rather than tell him the truth and have the north India born and raised Bengali man next to me, threaten me.

In Havelock I had asked the ex-hotelier driver, Nirmal, in a cheerful tone, “how is it that you all are so pleased to meet and chat with other Bengalis like us? As I have seen this with every stall or shop owner and driver here in Andamans. All become so pleased when I speak a few words of Bangla, which I proudly tend to do. Whereas if you go to other places in India – a Bengali usually does not take to, let alone help another Bengali. In fact, he would rather not acknowledge he is one himself than embrace another. And Bengalis tend to like any other clan but their own kind. The more alien the better to embrace!”

          “We islanders are simple people,” he replied after a pause. “We work very hard just to survive, as life is very expensive and thus difficult as compared to elsewhere. And we do not envy other people or succumb to our egos and jealousies, as we understand that only our hard work and personal destinies stand by us.”

The original piece of the 30 bighas of land along with the tin house that was given by the government to every Hindu Bengali refugee from East Pakistan, brave and willing to be rehabilitated to this island in lieu of constructing this island bit by bit, also starting life out anew – in what were desolate god forsaken jungles when they arrived. And working tirelessly to regain an identity to develop these islands into a habitat that today in less than 60 years is a tourist destination.  That indeed needs a self-respecting, respectful, spiritual attitude.

I now recognized the basis of these attitudes imbibed in me by my parents lifelong – after they came empty handed and single themselves from East Pakistan. There is just no time to envy others, indulge in negativity, when all your life goes into reclaiming your own identity. I would need to come full-circle in my deriving the source of this attitude I recognized in Andamans – and write a sequel to my debut book Across Borders.

PS: the photo album is in this link: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=pfbid02kYiZsXu1CnRzjrbb4AQt2CdnVTfBWBCVU7g9izHtyooj2jF1HGwicV9ekCh5Cwenl&id=614624973

The morning after I posted this blog, I happened to read this excerpt on Page 14, of the above book! Helps me sum up my blog so to speak… 😀

“She herself was opposite. She had a curious, receptive mind, which found much pleasure and amusement in listening to other folk. She was clever in leading folk on to talk. She loved ideas, and was considered very intellectual. What she liked most of all was an argument on religion or philosophy or politics with some educated man. This she did not often enjoy. So she always had people tell her about themselves, finding her pleasure so”.

This post is a continuation from – https://shuvashreechowdhury.com/2022/09/02/6892/

#magicalandamans #Andamans #exploreandamans #Portblair #HavelockIsland #Neilisland #partition #liberation #literaryfiction #historicalfiction #journalism #respectful #selfrespecting #Indianwriting #author

One thought on “A chance, spiritual meeting with my origins in Andamans

  1. Pingback: Magical Andamans | Shuvashree Chowdhury

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