Riders to the sea

The Andamans bring alive Conrad’s magic monotony of existence between sky and water

By Ananda Sen
  • Published 29.07.18
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When the sea asks, you give. Period. Even if it happens to be your breakfast. Joseph Conrad’s enchanting mistress can be demanding too when it is her turn; after all, she lets you frolic as you like in the shallow waters near the beach, lets the wave-top foam lick your toes, before the sand slips away underfoot in the surge back. Nor is her nether regions out of bounds — fish, flesh, snorkel and diving mask, et al. So when she asks for your breakfast, don’t hold back. Not that holding back helps in any way.

In the Andamans, the island cluster in the Bay of Bengal, it’s all about the sea, a turquoise pool from the air that changes colour to slate grey, blue and hazy brown as the airplane loses height over Port Blair through a light mist to touch down in a reassuring bump of wheels.

In the grey-green bay, the Green Ocean doesn’t bump. The cruise ferry heaves.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. Don’t panic please,” the announcement broke through the turbulent roll. It was high tide and the vessel, a speck in the sea, was sailing against the wind. “Don’t rush to the deck. That’s a request,” the captain cautioned, almost peremptory.

Inside the air-conditioned Green Ocean, someone threw up, an involuntary spasm that seemed to have gurgled up from the depths. So much for breakfast.

“Never knew seasickness could be so bad,” a lady grimaced as she wiped her mouth.

Conrad’s magic monotony of existence between sky and water had suddenly been replaced by an unexpected roil. Havelock Island and its aquamarine waters seemed a memory, its coconut rows and green undulating terrain forgotten in the churn of sea and self.

“You are lucky it wasn’t a fibreglass boat. They roll more,” Hafeez, as laconic as a sea-salted man, consoled as he leaned back behind the steering wheel of the Sumo, his “washed-up” passengers more sea-green than tanned by sun and brine.

Primordial roar 

Port Blair, bustling but ordered capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, seemed like long-lost terra firma after the two-and-a-half-hour rough ride back from Havelock.

The evening earlier, though, the only thing rough in Havelock was when you stepped on shells on the beach. There are several of them — Radhanagar, Elephanta, Kala Patthar — a curving stretch of light-brown sand segmented naturally by a mass of trees and perhaps also for tourist convenience. The more beaches the merrier.

The sea though is the same, a seemingly languid expanse that changes colour with the sky. How many billion dams would it fill and still have more to spare? The swell the boat made in its wake as it drifted away from land gave you an idea — don’t even try to calculate. But it is different on the beach as you watch a wave form: a low, wide noiseless ripple that appears to pause a fraction of an instant before the water breaks into a froth of surge and sound.

Tall men jerk up, short men jump. Men — well into rotund middle age — in trunks more suited for the likes of Daniel Craig, flop down. Two foreigners, more peach pink than dark swimsuit, weave in and out of the waves like modern-day mermaids. A boy wrapped around his father’s legs, before dad and son go down in a tangle of bodies.

At Kala Patthar (black stones literally), a long curving beach that merges into the horizon, dark rocks chiselled by wind and water sit unflinching like Quasimodo, powerful shoulders hunched like Victor Hugo’s misshapen protagonist.

The sea smashes into the rocks, trickles between the gaps and eddies in the wet sand before sliding back — its teasing Esmeralda touch lost on this stony hunchback.

June is probably not the best time to visit the Andamans. The weather is humid, the sun unrelenting. When it rains... the warm drops bring no relief. But the beach and the sea more than make up for the sweat and discomfort.

Back in Port Blair, the hotel balcony opened out to the sea, separated by a lawn, near enough to the water but just out of earshot of the slosh of waves. Which is a good thing. In the stillness of the night, the sound of the waves can be terrifying in their primordial roar. What the eye does not see, the imagination magnifies.

“You must come back again, sir,” Bablu Das, dining hall waiter, smiled when it was time to leave for the airport on the way back to Calcutta.

“You a Bengali?”

“Yes sir. Many of us here are…. You must visit Neill island… we will pack your breakfast like we did for your trip to Havelock.”

Breakfast? Maybe not, my friend. What if the sea asks for it once more?

TRAVEL PLAN

From Calcutta to Port Blair, it takes about two hours by flight. From here, it’s best to fix up the itinerary with a good travel agent. Once in Port Blair, link up with the travel agent’s Andaman representative for a visit to the usual spots, one of them the Cellular Jail. The ferry to Havelock leaves early in the morning. The reporting is around 6am and visitors go through airport-like frisking at the jetty before they are allowed to board after showing identity documents like Aadhaar, voter card or passport. The trip to Havelock takes about two hours, which might extend by half an hour depending on the tide and weather. Scuba diving costs Rs 3,500 and snorkelling Rs 1,000.

Pictures: Adreesh Sen