Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nature Claims back

Whenever I think of Andamans two images come to my mind- first of course is of crystal clear water in various shades of aquamarine and emerald and the other is of Ross Island. After my first visit I could not take this place out of my mind. So despite the constraints of time I somehow squeezed in a trip to this magical island once again . It is a very humbling experience to be there.

Once upon a time, and not very long back, it was an ideal British township. There was a government house, an officers’ club, a mess, a general store, a bakery, a workshop, a hospital ,a library, a beach, a swimming pool, a cathedral, a cemetery and bungalows with lovely view of sprawling bay to house the officers. Cannon boomed at every noon from the Ross Island till 1942. Parties, ball dances tennis matches and beach picnics were call of the day . It soon became a favorite haunt for the lovely ladies and gallant young officers . In those days it has a population of 500 including officers troops, Indian merchants and the families.

Named after Reginald Ross , famous marine surveyor , the island got its first settlement as Headquarters of British in the Penal settlement of Andamans on 10th March 1858. In 1872 Chief Commissionarate was established here . After that this island saw the lovely days of fun and gaiety. It hosted prominent visitors and was a cultural hub amidst all the gloom and sadness of penal settlement. Ross Island served the purpose of the British so well because of its commanding geographical location. It is on the mouth of Port blair harbour-just at a distance of 10 minutes by boat. No ship could go to Port Blair harbour without passing through the Ross and the island had fresh water in good supplies.

The fate and the fortunes of this tiny “island citadel” and its habitants changed almost within days with the coming of world war and the threat of Japanese acquisition. Further there were rumours after the massive earthquake of June 1941 that the island is sinking. Majestic buildings damaged by the earthquake were a sign of events to follow .Most of the population – ladies and children, were sent away. And then Japs finally arrived on the jetty of the island on a fine morning of May 1942. The chief commissioner Mr. Waterfall was taken as PoW and sent away. Dy. Commissioner Major Bird was imprisoned and soon beheaded at Aberdeen. In December 1943 during his visit to these islands , Subhash Chandra Bose also came to the Ross as a guest of Japanese Army . But the new masters also could not stay here for long. During their stay of about three years, the Japanese gave this island a military look. Bunkers and small military installations were built from the material of existing buildings . One fine day, they too were forced to desert the island and its impressive buildings for their home shores….they left as abruptly as they had arrived after the British regained control at the end of World War II . The only signs of their presence here are few bunkers left behind by them. However, by this time the seat of power was shifted to Port Blair and Ross Island could never relive those days of grandeur and glory.
Now it was nature’s turn to take back what was originally its own. And very soon this Paris of the East , as it was called in its heydays, was turned into a haunted isle, a wash in memories- with widening cracks, rotten woodwork and crumbling masonry . One by one structures started showing signs of decay .Nature spread its fingers in the shape of roots on the regal buildings of the past and fury of the waves did the rest.

Since late 1970s , it is under the control of Indian Navy and the new masters are no longer interested in restoring the past glory. Rather the island is left as an episode of lost history of the region. Except few deer and a group of peacocks there is no one to share the stories the crumbling walls are telling. No one is interested anymore in the gossip with which the club and officers’ mess used to reverberate every evening and even the dead cremated here are long forgotten by their progeny. Only force that works day in and out is that of nature- its nature’s revenge at its best. The world of romance died out now only the mystery lives on.

Find more photos clicked by me at this island at Andaman pics

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sagar Kinare …..

Just came back from a long walk along the sea . Its so rejuvenating …so fulfilling. Almost like a dream….a scene straight out of National geographic, something so beautiful that you pinch yourself hard to assure that it is real. After a day full of boring office work nothing makes me happier than a good walk. But one can never get such peace , such lovely soothing air and such colours in the sky in a metro. I went out just to click some photos and here is a sample of my evening photography.

The best part is that there were no overbearing noises- no honking of horns, no blaring loudspeakers and no sounds of TV from the neighbours’s apartment . And since these sounds were not there , one could hear the delicate sound of waves, hissing of evening air on coconut leaves and chirping of birds. Since there is no distraction , you can watch the ships coming back to the shore, beam of light from the lighthouse and the rocks beneath the translucent water . How I long for each day to end like this!!!!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Sunny Isles in the Emerald Bay

Once again I am at Port Blair, the tiny little island which is the capital of Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands…India’s southern-most part .Its always been so exciting to be at this part of the world…The allure of these islands of the marigold sun strung along the aquamarine water of the bay( they are also called Bay islands) weaves a magical spell even after a series of upheavals both mad made and natural. This region is a part of the mountainous landmass running from Myanmar to the outer reaches of Indonesia….but strangely enough these islands were by-passed by the main shipping lines that piled the waters of the Bay of Bengal . On the positive side, though, this isolation only added to the charm, only enhanced the air of mystery that enveloped this emerald archipelago of 572 islands , islets and rocks.

I have been here earlier …but this is my first visit after Tsunami. During those training days we came here for training with the joint command of army-navy and Airforce. It was good fun to be here with the gang. More than that my best friend Rani was posted here at that time. I have such lovely memories of those fun filled days when we visited the beautiful Radhanagarm beach on Havelock island or when till near about midnight me and Rani walked barefoot for hours on the sandy beach of Carbyn’s cove ( Much to the shock of her orderly and driver). There were also some chilling moments in that trip, I still remember that unhappy feeling I had, when we visited the Cellular Jail National Memorial.Oh, those days of Kala Pani! Even today I find it horrifying that freedom fighters were jailed in those dingy small cells for years (sometimes for life term) by the so called gentlemen Britons. Those young men( many still teenagers) who were fighting for their country…many of them breath their last after days of torture and starvation in these cells, few others were hanged after attempts to escape and most unfortunate of them died as unsung heroes after years of Indian Independence. Some could never adjust to the politics of newly Independent India and decided to stay on at these islands. Then we also went to see the gallows at Viper Island where the air was still thick with guilt and murder.

Its almost 4 years from that visit and in between the Islands witnessed the deadly Tsunami when in one go everything was wiped away. So many lives were lost, so many islands were submerged. It was nature at its destructive worst . But the life won at last. Today the place is struggling back to normalcy. One of the most striking pictures of Tsunami I remember is of a Commodore who was posted at the air base of Car Nicobar Island where destruction was much more than other Islands. The lost his entire family, his house and belongings in the Tsunami . On the fourth day when the Air Chief arrived with the relief team this officer saluted him with the pride of a military man, though wearing just a vest and underwear – for that is what he was left with. I find that image one of the most telling image of the situation.
But life and optimism has always won the battle on these shores however hard be the reality. They have a unique blend of cultures…besides the various tribes of jarwas, onges, Burmese, Nicobarese, sentinelise there are people from practically every region of the country inhabiting the place , making its their own.

Today the sea is no longer turbulent. In fact it is calm and welcoming .The sky is blue as ever and the greenery all around is giving shape to this land of emerald water – as if saying that the past was just a nightmare –a flicker in the eyes of God. The islands of marigold sun and white sand beaches are once again spreading their arms to visitors.

Morning woes and “Simply-fly”

However hard I may try, I must concede that I am not a morning person. In different phases of life , in the last thirty years of existence , I have tried getting up early for various reasons and compulsions including morning walk, studies, meditation, compulsory PT and now household chores ….and though I managed the task at hand somehow( thanks to those bugging alarm clocks!), it was always very painful. I love my morning sleep. Though I also like the idea of watching sunrise or walking on the grass moist with dew and the gentle caress of morning breeze….let me be honest getting up early is very difficult. But like all other unfortunate kids of my generation, I always had school starting from 7-7.30 in the morning. Getting up, getting ready and reaching the school was such a race against time. Today I look at those days from the eyes of my parents, how many years of morning sleep they had to sacrifice to get us ready in time, tiffin and water bottle in tow and to make us reach safely to school gates. In big cities it is worse…today I find mothers dragging their half asleep children to bus stop (at times with bread or banana in hand) to meet the school timings.

On second thoughts, I feel guilty that I am cribbing as I have been very fortunate so far …at least on a comparative scale. Many others in my office have to start hours before me to reach on time …that too in overcrowded local trains and buses .Their day starts at early hours every morning. My sister who is a teacher and mother of two school going children, starts her day at 4.30 every morning…even in those impossibly cold months. Poor girl…my heart goes out for her. But then I had my due as well, in University days, my French class started at 6.30 AM and in the winter months by the time I reached the campus…my fingers were too numb to use the brakes of scooter and despite all those layers of wool on me, I felt like yelling loud – "Monsieur, Je veux dormir."

In those days I thought once I am out of studies, it will be just 10-5 office and my sleep will no longer be disturbed. But life…it had some other devilish plans. We had compulsory PT/Jogging in our FC training … and though very soon I started enjoying the drill…it was a drill nevertheless. Specially when in December, Mussoorie was very very cold. The biggest challenge was to get out of the bed and in Shimla later on, I had a roommate of matching talents…so two of us will first request then order and finally yell at each other to get up first.
Though I can’t help getting up at 6 on weekdays, my weekend sleep is precious. I can jolly well kill the one who breaches my golden hours of bliss on those two days. I have an instant dislike for friends and relatives who call at early hours on weekends. (And mind you 9am is EARLY on weekends!) ….but then not everybody is civilized these days…so on many occasions I have to make this supreme sacrifice of curtailing my trip to dreamland thanks to some bugger ringing my doorbell for a bill-payment or may be a promotional SMS on my phone. These days my enemy no one is my husband’s mobile….which disturbs my precious sleep on weekend morning and then again repeats the crime during weekend siesta. Ironically, every time it rings with its ringtone “ BE WHAT YOU WANNA BE…” I feel like throwing it down from the balcony….I mean Jesus Christ, I just WANT to be asleep . But then, not every wish is granted.
Today was also one such fateful day…I got up at 3 AM this morning . I had a flight to catch and the reporting time was 4 AM. And to make the matter worse, it was raining. Now, tell me how can you expect a sane person to get up so early and start on the streets when there is absolutely no one except street dogs and milkvans for company. But that’s life!
` So I reached Airport half asleep, hoping in the heart of hearts that the flight gets cancelled. But the sun god was in a mood to get back to work after days of laziness and soon it was a clear sky and my flight took off like a silver eagle awash in radiant hues.
But my morning woes already disappeared once I reached airport. I was surprised to find the bustling crowd even at that early hour. My first reaction was of empathy…poor dears, they too must have left the warm welcoming beds for this cold and crowded airport….and then I found that most people were looking quite happy and were curiously soaking in the sights and sounds of the airport. When I looked around I found the profile of air travelers has changed a lot in the last one year or so….mostly because now many more lower middle class families can afford to fly. It was these first time fliers who were enjoying the scene –crowd and confusion included, even at this hour. Some of them may be here since last night for this new experience of flying. There were giggling teenagers, awe struck couples, confused senior citizens and a group of very happy children. And I know the reason why they were so happy.
When we were kids air-travel was a thing of wonder. You would not find many friends and cousins taking the flight and whenever any such case was reported it generated immediate curiosity among the neighbourhood children. The recently-air-traveled friend would become a sort of celebrity and will be bombarded with questions – Did you feel scared? Could you see the clouds? Could you take out your hands from the window? How big was the aeroplane from inside? Were the airhostess pretty? …. And the answers, however much wrong …including half baked lies …were accepted with much wow-ing, applause and envy. (I still remember one such celebrity flier of neighbourhood found the “blue water” coming out from the flush of the toilet –the most interesting aspect of air-travel. He used the loo 8-10 times in that 55 minute flight just to marvel at that lovely shade of blue!)
But the scene has changed now. Air travel is no longer that expensive. Domestic airports in India are full of first-time- air passengers and no-frill airlines are doing huge business. But this also means that airports are crowded as never before and the poor infrastructure is crumbling under pressure . There are long queues at security checks, more cases of lost luggage and passenger problems. But for me the saddest part is the charm of air travel is gone. Its no longer that unusual…after all, as a budget airlines’ tag line screams on billboards -its “simply-fly” .

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Witch of Portobello.. and Beyond

I was always interested in Witches…even beyond the typical fairy tales where they are always depicted as bad-ugly women harming innocent people. When I first read about the witch hunts of middle ages, I was very confused and I wanted to read more-know more ,about those witches and why they were considerred such a threat to the society . Later, thanks to internet I heard about the new form religion of Wicca. The more I read about it the more I am convinced that “That which you create is the truth, What occurs is not always true.” I was so moved by the stories of witch-hunt that during my civil service training when I had to choose a topic for dissertation I decided to work on the “Art of witchcraft” . My batchmates initially thought that I was joking but I hope later they realize the seriousness of the issue. Here is the presentation I made for the dissertation .
Today a witch for me is an empowered woman. I believe that they were “hunted” because they were talking about the things and ideals for which the world was not ready…. or should I say “Christianity” was not ready.May be that is the way with all organized religions - they have to first prove (by force mostly) that the existing religions are not good enough for the people- that the teachings of those religions are wrong – that the pagan traditions are un-holy , to offer themselves as an alternative . In the tales of these hunted witches one finds first traces of feminism, of worship of sacred-feminine and of individual liberty .
Needless to say that I was very curious about the new book of Paulo Coelho when head that it is called “The Witch of Portobello” . Last night I finished reading the book and …its after long that I am so moved by a book. A very powerful book- extremely lucid style of writing and a very convincing tale to tell. The book is mind blowing-perhaps much more than any other book by Coelho…including all time favorite The Alchemist .
Don’t get me wrong by thinking that the book is about Witchcraft. No it is not. It is about finding yourself. Awakening your true self and accepting yourself.It is about having courage not to pretend being NORMAL when you know you are more than that.... Have you not met someone (man and woman alike) who is trying hard to fit the bill of the world by being what she/he is not? Not daring to look at the blanks left between the business of life …not accepting the dissatisfaction of her/his mind. Fearing that she/he will be branded “different”. Well , I know many such souls …including my own self . No wonder therefore, that I could relate to the story so instantaneously

“A new witch-hunt is starting to gain ground. This time the weapon isn’t the red-hot iron, but irony and repression. Anyone who happens to discover a gift and dares to speak of their abilities is usually regarded with distrust. Generally speaking, their husband, wife, father or child, or whoever, instead of feeling proud, forbids all mention of the matter, fearful of exposing their family to ridicule.”

The book tells a story of Athena, or Sherine. Her life is pieced together through a series of recorded interviews with those people who knew her well or hardly at all - parents, colleagues, teachers, friends, acquaintances, followers , her ex-husband. Athena was born to a gypsy mother who abandoned her in an orphanage in Romania from where a Lebanese family adopted her . After spending her childhood in Beirut she shifts to London with her adoptive family when war breaks out. On a material plain she is like any other woman- having a fair mix of successes and failures , but then she has some blanks between her activities and unlike others she decides to look into those –attempts to fill it by discovering who she really is? Her journey though begins with her search for her natural mother, could not stop after that .After a series of events marking her search for self Athena, who has been dubbed ‘the Witch of Portobello’ for her seeming powers of prophecy, disappears dramatically, leaving those who knew her to solve the mystery of her life and abrupt departure.

“These are her gardens, her rivers, her mountains. Now that she is gone, I need everything to return as quickly as possible to how it used to be. I am going to concentrate more on traffic problems, Britain's foreign policy, on how we administer taxes. I want to go back to thinking that the world of magic is merely a clever trick, that people are superstitious, that anything science cannot explain has no right to exist. When the meetings in Portobello started to get out of control, we had endless arguments about how she was behaving, although I am glad now that she did not listen to me.”

But as I followed Athena in her journey, I was compelled to ask the same questions myself. I found the answers interesting. Coelho’s storytelling craft is amazing in this book as he relentlessly explores the crevices of the soul to come up with gems of observations that haunt us long afterwards. The book is simply unputdownable and even after you will finish reading the text its meaning ..its essence.. will not leave your mind.