Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sons and Soils : Andamans -1

Just back from the Andaman islands.

These are actually supposed to be the top of huge land masses/mountains that got pushed up due to earth movements in the Bay of Bengal, aeons ago. For a Mumbai based, concrete-ravaged, traffic dodging person in the senior age category, it is totally stunning, to see islands after islands, just completely bursting with rain-forest greenery, with slivers of beaches here and there, and sensible levels of traffic moving in small cities, as your plane descends to the airport.

Our arrival was greeted on the tarmac with guys in uniforms and rifles/guns , surrounding the flummoxed motley groups of old people, young couples, cool couples, grandparents with entire families, wailing kids, and children who wanted to just run around. Turns out that we had a Union Minister coming to inaugurate their first computerized Post Office set up in the Andamans and he had some fancy security. His entire set of in-laws(many of them married to British folks), had come along to spend Christmas in the Andamans. The in laws hailed from Kashmir, so that was understandable. And so we duly dodged some smart uniforms, tinted cars with flags and sirens, and hot footed it to the arrivals , where, surprise, surprise, the hotel vehicle awaited us !

The islands depend on tourists for their economy the year round, except for 2 monsoon months of July and August. The Armed forces of the country understandably have a significant presence here in the Bay of Bengal, which also creates a lot of civilian jobs. And so we have Port Blair, with wide, non-potholed(hurrah!) roads, undulating over the hilly landscape. There are a lot of Tata Sumos, and Maruti Omnis charging around with tourists. Then there are the local buses, that seem to have sensible levels of crowds, that bring succour to my Mumbai eyes, and yes, they have rickshaws. Except they paint Gods and Goddeses' names on them, unlike Mumbai, where a rickshawallah thinks nothing of advertising the latest movie "The Three Idiots" by painting at the back of his vehicle , "Capacity : 3 idiots". And to hell with the actual customers sitting inside.

Very noticeable, across the islands as a whole. is a respect for trees and greenery and preservation of the same. The Forest department here seems to know the value of what they have, and take great pains to preserve it. On a far off island of Baratang, 100 miles away, reachable by ferry and then an arduous drive to a mud volcano, the Forest department even displayed its literary talents with this sign.

The tourists come from all across India, with predominance of people from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Orissa and West Bengal. We did run into a Naval architect from Maharashtra (when I stopped his little running daughter from banging into a table at dinner), but he wasn't a tourist, he worked there for the Navy.

We would often run into the same people again and again on our trips, and I was very intrigued by a Sardarji (=Sikh) family, which seemed to be in a huge group with elderly parents, assorted cousins and nephews, and wife and children. The head of the group seemed to be a strapping six foot Sardar , the type you see riding a horse in the President's bodyguard' parade in Delhi. These folks appeared to be, a prosperous farmer family from Punjab; not the build-a-farmhouse-type, but more a Punjab-ki-mitti, relax-on-a-charpoy, and enjoy-the-lassi-ji type.

On a whole day harbour trip in a ship, we would get off at various islands and tour the place which had excellent directions. On one of these, Ross Island, relics from the days when the British set up garrisons, and townships, they now displayed ruins complete with the commandant's house, church, bakery, power station, swimming pools, hospitals, "subordinates" center , armoury, and so on.

Surprisingly, thousands of miles from my house, we noticed , carved on a rusted boiler in the ruins of an old power plant, the names of my children ! The couple who thought it mandatory to carve themselves on a rusting boiler on Ross Island, possibly years ago, didn't realize that rust crumbles eventually. But we were certainly thunderstruck to see these names, particularly since one member of our family had not been able to make it on this trip.

Mr S., the Sardar, would stride purposefully, at the head of his family group, a sense of history and pride on his face, urging the others along, and announce things to his children and parents, carefully explaining things. He always had questions for the guide, and listened attentively to him.

Of all the folks one encountered, there was sense of pride in these people that was difficult to ignore. There was an urge to learn. As responsible citizens. His aged parents, would follow behind, with Mrs S. beaming and following, ensuring every now and then that they had adequate water and rest, with the younger children rushing off to get water bottles filled etc. Occasionally the younger kids would want to take photos, and Mr S, would pose with his arms around his father/mother/wife,amidst the ruins. Very friendly folks, there would always be a smile whenever we ran into each other during the trips.

There was sense of non-flamboyant joie de vivre when they were around, and much of it very apparent when we all got off the tour ship, into small motorboats to observe undersea corals , and then go swimming and snorkeling at the North Islands. The entire family was in the water, and the last to leave it, as we went back up into the ship an hour later. The aged parents were helped into the motor boats which was a bit of an acrobatic manoeuvre. Every body knew about the tsunami , and the coral flung by the waves way up the beach-front was indicative of the angry force of the waves. Many of us collected the corals, and I saw Mr S. holding it in his hand and touching his forehead with them as he closed his eyes. Something very earthy and nationalistic in the person's gestures drew our attention.

One of the things the British excelled at, throughout history is setting up Penal settlements in far flung islands, and using the prisoners as labour. Right from the Indian war of independence in 1857, (Sepoy Mutiny etc), they had started building a regular jail for them in Port Blair (more about that in Part-2), and those who were labelled as "difficult" had something worse in store. They used a very remote, heavily forested, non inhabited island called Viper island to hang who they considered "treacherous folk" and we considered freedom fighters. The structure was force-built by prisoners in fetters, and there was a gallows at the top, visible to every one.

Sher Ali, a Pathan , was condemned to die for murdering Lord Mayo during the freedom struggle, and the guide gave a very stirring speech about his last days at this monument. The speciality of the British was not just cruel hanging, but shocking mental and physical torture and injury prior to that, and the story of Sher Ali's last days brought shivers . Prisoners who died were often thrown into the deep sea, to avoid explaining the torture marks. Not that anyone asked.

There was silence as the story ended. Everyone turned to return to the ship.

And we saw Mr S, sit down on his knees, close his eyes, and say a little prayer from his religion, for the hanged man's soul. Two centuries ago, he must have been Mr S.'s age, with aged parents and a family, hailing from roughly the same geographical area as S. He must have thrown himself into the freedom struggle, got caught and then his family probably never saw him again, till his shocking end at Viper island.

Today Mr S. could travel around and succeed in life, a free individual, because of the sacrifices of freedom fighters like Sher Ali, and he had to acknowledge that. When he got up from the ground, he touched a bit of soil to his forehead. His mother patted his arm as he came up to the group. His father, understandably stoic, as old people often are, got the grandchildren together. They had observed their father, and heard the stories. He would talk to them later about it. And they slowly made their way back to the ship.

There was something to learn, here , for me.

This man was a real son of the soil. He lived the soil as he tilled it . He connected to it as a son of an immense land, India, for which his forefathers fought. He strode it with a sense of visible pride. He was interested to see how the British, the erstwhile enemy post 1857, used the land and developed it. Today, as an independent Indian, he observed the different technologies he could glean from the ruins at Ross island. He wanted his kids to learn about how various folks in history , across India , participated in the freedom movement And his mind cried for the soul of the brave Pathan who went to the gallows swearing on Independence to India, unmindful of the atrocities perpetrated on him..

Not for him the pseudo loyalties of regional states in India. That was for the free loaders, the politicians, who made sons of the soil an election issue, and later on forgot the sons and the soil, as they clung to the trees of power, their scruples lost in the wind.

His attitude towards the land was akin to his attitude towards his parents. As folks who were possibly fairly less "educated " by today's standards, his parents had really brought him up well. That Sher Ali Pathan was a Moslem didn't matter. He lived to unite, not to divide. And regardless of how you prayed , it all reached the same God .

We all sing the National Anthem many times. The words come automatically. The regions. The rivers. Have done so since school. At various flag hoistings, and watched it on television on momentous national occasions.

And yet, we continue to agitate for independent states, dictated by greed. Of natural resources. And unnatural amounts of money. Some even kill.

The National Anthem . I just wonder how often we understand the meaning.

And do we even try.

I thought S. , the Sardar, actually lived it.


  1. 1sttt! Now going to read the post :P

  2. Ah ! so you were in the Andamans ! how lovely ! Have been wanting to go there for some time.

    There are thousands and thousands of moments of history tucked away in our lands. I was Pune at the Aga Khan palace and had goosebumps all over me. Thinking of how it must have been in those times !

    The sons of the soil forgetting the sons, the soil and the term 'sons of the soil' the moment some seats are won and money is made is what we see all around.

    The brave Pathan that you have seen and the simple folks have lived a life that has made us walk erect and with honour are forgotten quite easily.

    The way the world works is funny !

    And how interesting to notice someone had already a welcome planned for you ! With rust and all that...! :)

    Am glad you've had a swell trip ! Looking forward to Part - 2

  3. That was a lovely trip. However, I did get chills reading about the Sikh family and what happened with at the Viper Island. So much sadness came from the struggles of our countries to be free. I have native American heritage and that tribe was taken from their lands onto what is called "The Trail of Tears". Many died. My ancestors stayed off the rolls, but they followed the same trail, but came to Texas instead of going to Oklahoma. My grandmother took me to a gathering in Anadarka, Oklahoma when I was a little girl. My dad was so handsome, but my grandmother really looked even more like a Cherokee than he did.

    The part about the rickshawallah writing Capacity: 3 Idiots was so funny. :)

    I told Anil P how much I'd like to come to India, but I fear it is too late for me. I'm not sure my knees and feet would hold up to see it as it should be seen. Age is creeping up on me. Every now and then I am startled to think how did it happen that I got this old.

    And another thing. I'd never heard anyone speak of a Sikh before very much at all until we were on a cruise a few years ago. Our dinner couple was British and our waiter was from Mumbai. It was interesting.

  4. What a lovely narration of your trip to the Andamans! So much history to remember and be proud of.

    'Sons of the soil' has changed its meaning for many people- nice to be reminded of what it really means!

  5. Only you can mold a post into various forms... club it all and present so finely and crisply...

    The lessons learnt..! I liked the question in the end..."do we even try to understand the meaning of National Anthem"

  6. Folks, thank you for your nice comments....

  7. I can grant you that...Andaman and Nicobar Islands might be totally stunning for a Mumbai based, concrete-ravaged, traffic dodging person in the senior age category.

    But let me assure you that the effect will be the same even if the tourist happens to hail from a small town in UP and is aged 23 years...I say this with confidence because thats how old I was when I visited A&N Islands in 1994