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The India we know so little of
September 28, 2005
The first sign that Andaman and Nicobar is a class apart is that the Jet Airways code reads IXZ.
If I didn't know I was headed for Port Blair, it could have meant anything like flying to the Galapagos or to the island in Lost.
The window seat wasn't much of a bonus because most of the time all that could be seen below were clusters of clouds and snatches of land mass way below between balls of cotton.
But once the aircraft swooped lower -- boy o boy!
The mighty Bay of Bengal couldn't be more majestic. Its waters in symmetrical patterns with little clusters of surf punctuating a vast mass of turquoise and aquamarine water. Layer upon layer of surf hitting a green shore that abounded with coconut trees and more coconut trees.
If travel brochures referred to this region on the map as the Emerald Islands, it is not a pumped up advert. You can believe this one. Just don't get disappointed with Port Blair city, which is busy like any capital is wont to be, the real treasures lie on the little islands nearby.
I was headed to one of these islands, not seeking beauty but to see how the tsunami had ravaged pristine beauty. It was the first time I was going to board a ship for an overnight journey. MV Dering, the ship like all ships in the region was named after one of the 572 islands that constitute this archipelago.
With a passenger capacity of 260 and 35 crew, the cabin ticket was priced at a modest Rs 153. The minimum cab fare from my home to office is 30 short of that! While the cheapest ticket for the overnight ride was Rs 45.
The ship schedule is printed a day in advance in the government-run local newspaper.
'Emergency signal -- seven short blasts, one long blast. Wear life jacket.' The notice was just above the two high beds in the medical cabin we had been accommodated into due to short notice. A strong smell of disinfectant was a comfort in the room -- a bathroom, two beds and one window. It was basic alright but clean and that was good enough.
The sea was rough at times and the ship swayed making everything in the tummy sway with it. Manjeet, our hotel manager, had told us not to drink too much water and we did good by heeding his advice.
At 5 am we were near Hut Bay but since the passenger jetty was destroyed, a smaller boat came to fetch passengers. Our autorickshaw driver told us that most autos had been destroyed and quoted Rs 400 for taking us around till noon.
The road running along the coast goes past uprooted trees and razed homes bearing names on wooden planks. Some nameplates nailed to the trees, residents had marked where their homes had once stood.
R Dinakaran, once the owner of one of the biggest shops here, said the bazaar now only had a handful of shops. But he was confident that things would improve by and by. Dinakaran said since there were very few cows left after the tsunami, the thing he sold most every day was milk powder.
What do you do in a place that's routed and you're starving. If you're lucky like we were, the auto driver will take you to a place which has the most basic food cooked by a fantastic cook. And that's where we found ourselves queuing up.
The room inside had one wooden bench and table and could seat only three at a time. Shaji, the man who ran it, had cooked rice, dal, cabbage and fried fish. Before the tsunami, this used to be a shop but he converted it to a mess after the tragedy. His regulars were government staff employed in the PWD or tehsildar's office.
When we asked him for another piece of fried fish, there was none left. Shaji had only managed to get five kgs of fish that morning for Rs 100. His wife and he ran the place, charging Rs 30 for a meal. The food was delicious and the best we had during our 10 days in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
On an island where everything comes from elsewhere by the sea, Mohan had a huge consignment to transport across the bay. Two elephants.
He had brought them along when he moved to Hut Bay in 1983 for his timber extraction business but when the Supreme Court banned the felling of trees in 2003, he had wrapped his business and moved to back to the mainland.
The elephants were left behind and Mohan was waiting to transport them back. The tsunami had destroyed jetties and sea breakers, making it terribly difficult to transport even relief material, so getting elephants across the sea wasn't going to be easy. As for the cost, Mohan reckoned it would cost him Rs 150,000 each per elephant to move them back!
He was returning on the Long Island ship back to Port Blair that evening and wasn't sure when he'd be able to take the elephants.
On the ship, he along with a bunch of us made the journey to Port Blair with Kishore Kumar's songs playing from the music system. It had been a day I knew I would not easily forget, so even though I was steadily getting seasick, I wrote six pages about it in my notes in the cabin that night. What appears above are snatches from those pages.
For more on my assignment in Andaman and Nicobar read Tsunami, six months on: Life in Andaman and Nicobar