HAVELOCK ISLAND, ANDAMANS
TEXT BY MEETU DESAI
Go barefoot to the Andamans. This is a place of pilgrimage. You need to have the faith, you need to believe: there are no deities, no shrines, no monuments. But yes, if you are pagan and would genuflect to a spiny thorny woody leafy decades old tree, if you would stop to hear birdsong, if you would pray that there always be a sea and a forest, if you would revere the place enough to collect all your plastic and take it back with you, and promise never to return, and never to tell anyone about this place, so that it remains there, suspended on its latitude and longitude, alone, unspoilt, self absorbed and ever growing, then and only then must you go to the Andamans.

We touch Havelock Island for an eight-day stay. Port Blair has not prepared us for the crystalline quality of the water; green, like recycled glass. The water winks at the sun, catching the sparkling blues in the sky. Then the sky clouds and everything turns grey. We are putting up at the Wild Orchid on beach no. 5. The water here is placid as a bathtub, so clear that I can see my feet. There are no breakers. Mangroves sulk over the waters at high tide. Hermit crabs in shades of red, green and grey carry matching shells on their backs. When I place one on my palm, anxious eyes on stalks pop out, then with a sideways crawl, the crab tries to sidle away from this unfamiliar terrain. A young girl walks on the beach, quietly photographing the shell and coral washed up by the tide, loath to disturb them from their place in the sand. A lesson in gentleness. Despite the stricture on carrying shells and coral out of the Andamans, I collect cowries, dog shells, scorpion shells, broken coral, and admire them every evening, touching the smooth shapes. Before we leave, I return them to the shore.

Every resort here seems to be richer because of the wild life it houses. A frill of beach forms an ocean-view verandah. We are delighted to discover a brilliantly green lizard with delicate toes - the emerald gecko. Golden orioles krrrrrr loudly in the foliage, as do drongos. A parrot, as big as a sparrow, whirrs rapidly by, disappearing before we have seen it; its high-pitched squeaks lingering after it is gone. A hill myna keeps up a spirited soliloquy. A neat harrier looks down from its perch on the Bombax tree. Frogs croak. I see two types of kingfisher, the fairy bluebird, any number of sunbirds, bee eaters, hordes of honking rosy breasted parakeets, the scarlet minivet, bee eaters, coucals, starlings, magpie robins, red-whiskered bulbuls. My binocs give out on me; I miss observing closely, the serpent eagle and the sea eagle. But I do meet fat dark brown lizards, armies of white ants, and evil looking red centipedes feeling their way up and down rotting wood on which I sit to rest.

The water and sand brought us here. We were not prepared for our first experience of a tropical forest. We are on our way to Radhanagar beach. The road is narrow, following an increasingly higher contour. Cottages lie scattered on the wayside, guardians of the paddy fields and vegetable gardens. Kingfishers shimmer in the sunshine. To our left, hills swell out of the land. Then, the trees start. Armies of old as stories trees. Lofty tops, gray trunks, a high canopied filigree of leaves, which we have to throw our heads back to see. Radhanagar beach appears over a rise. Somebody knew that someone would want to identify the gods. The trees are labeled - sea mohwa, didu, jungli jamun, jungli badam, Manilkara littoralis, chatium. I had been to the Chatham sawmill at Port Blair and hated it. It’s naïve; trees will be felled and felled, but I am dogmatix about dead trees. Here is proof that all is well with the world. The trees are alive and breathing. A fool’s paradise, still…paradise!

If on the other side of the island, all was quiet and still, the water at Radhanagar – beach no. 7, is a battery of seething energy. A long line of breakers thunders into us as we go to meet the waves. The majestic semi- evergreen forest rims the beach, looking, in the far distance, like something out of Jurassic Park. It is early October, the clouds have been in a whimsical mood; they have been suspended over the waters in a dense cover, and now darken and let loose. We laugh as we see other tourists, till now prancing in the waves, rush for cover. Can the rain be wetter than the sea? It seems so. The rain puts up an impressive display of energy. The massive waves lose their edge and are flattened into a stippled mass. Speared by a million, trillion, gazillion drops. The water mattes and heaves sullenly. And then, as suddenly, the rain retreats into the clouds. The sea is a riot of whiteheads, and our neighbours come running back. The forest exhales thick white strands of vapour.

I walk the 12 kms back in the shadow of my tall trees. Jeeps careen madly along the curves. A gaggle of children returning from school adopt me as wayside companion. Women collect firewood. The forest gives way to open paddy fields. The sky deepens. Every other open shelter has a carom board, around which groups of boys stand and play. I manage the main market in two hours. Stop to drink sweet black tea. It is too early in the evening for the WWE wrestling matches, so the tea stall is bereft of the male population that gathers to watch TV every evening. The vegetable market is somnolent. One of the young boys from the Wild Orchid is here to haggle for fresh fish. A medical store, a pocket-sized bookshop and a half a dozen tourists-disposables’ shops make up the rest of the market. It is a compact place, peters out in 100 meters, before the turn in the road.

Havelock is not a carnival. Things are not geared for entertainment. Infrastructure is elementary but adequate. The place seems young, with no history. It is easy to assume that: the villages are numbered. No names, no ownership; though we discover, that apart from the administrative parlance, there are names – Krishnanagar, Radhanagar, Shyamnagar; but then, even saade chhe village – village no. 6 and a half. Official detachment, and attachment to the land. Young rice fields bracket roads. The land rises at places in a dense wooded mass. Parts of the forested area are off limits. Parts are given over to settlements of Bangladeshi refugees. Tracts of land along the beach are claimed by the tourist industry. Accommodation is available in simple log cottages, grass huts, or tents. Local buses connect populated ends of the island. The ubiquitous auto exists. Motorbikes and bicycles can be obtained for daily hire. Petrol is available at the jetty or local bazaar, when it comes on the daily dhongie. If the dhongie does not arrive, there is no petrol. But the best way to explore the island, we find, is on foot or bicycle, so you can look around as you go. Night falls swiftly after the sun sets, which is at about 5.35pm these days.

We walk, cycle, swim, fish, eat, read, snorkel. We feel privileged to be here, on this clean, bright, primordial land, with its delicate marine ecosystem, and fragile forests; vulnerable as a heartbeat, and as sacred. Go there, if you will. But leave nothing to let anyone know you have been there. And drop a coin in the water.
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