I took my family to the Andaman Islands in December.
The first thing I want to say about it is that I forgive myself.
The place was soul wrenchingly beautiful but it was spirit-crushing hard for our family to carry mummy’s health all the way to the Bay of Bengal and back. And now, here, I am glad for the beautiful parts and for the rest, I forgive myself.
We are all tired, in a bad way. The day has gone wrong. We were to reach Neil Island but couldn’t because no ferries run after 11:00 a.m. and I didn’t know that. So we stayed back in Port Blair in a cheap inn. I am disappointed in myself & I think so is papa. He wouldn’t tell, which only makes it worse, somehow.
We made the most of what we had though. We did a touristy sightseeing tour of Port Blair. We went to the central jail, Chidiya tapu and Corbin’s cove. I wonder why these were named so, Note to Google.
Central Jail made me nostalgic about a time I didn’t exist in, a time I am still thankful for. I went into the cells, designed to be claustrophobic. Tiny, walled, worrying. And a small garden in the front of each row of cells. I could hear birds and I imagined the prisoners hearing them too. You think they took any joy in the sunlight? Maybe on a quiet night, they also heard the waves; the waves that were a part of the design to captivate them.
Mummy cried & kept repeating that the prisoners had to beg to pee. She started reciting a poem Veer Savarkar wrote about India. While we were in this mind space, honeymooning couples continued clicking photos of each other in the cells. If I had had a sense of humour, I would have made an album of photos called ‘honeymooning in central jail’. At Chidiya Tapu, everything looked like a painting. Mangroves are so beautiful.
But what do you do of beautiful if you are unhappy and anxious? The sunset somehow, somewhere made this heavy life feel un-unwieldy. But the water helped, like it does, in carrying this heavy life, for a brief moment it felt a little lighter.
When we got back, anxiety rose. I have messed up the Diglipur bookings too. There would be no refund. It was day 1, I had already messed up. The dinner was sad. No one spoke. It was like someone had died. When I got back I told B to not Envy me, because I was anxious. And he said ‘it still beats Phoenix Mall’. It does.
It took us 3 days but we finally got here. This feels worth it. The hotel rooms are big & have wooden everything. There are lamps & palm trees outside my balcony. The bathroom has a ‘vanity kit’. It feels like a win.
Lunch was good. But Ruchi & I triggered mummy. See how I wrote the sentence? In it, mummy doesn’t find her own trigger, I force a trigger on her. Mummy’s health is still somehow a function of me. It felt selfish of her to be sick now. My body went back to chest ache & thoughts of dying, in my mind, I told myself this “beats Phoenix”. We walked to the beach later through the papaya, banana, guava, custard apple & palm tree garden of the hotel. Mummy said some heartbreaking things, which I will spear us, but stopped to sing ‘Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye’. It was the cleanest water we ever saw. It had us understand song inspirations, understand making poets of blood & flesh. There were coral in colours I didn’t know existed & walking shells. I saw shells eat coconut, fight & walk away. How untouched does a place have to be to have tiny shells fight/live it in a crab’s empty, hollowed out body cavity!? We walked for an hour & sat down in the sand. Mummy & I sat looking at the moon while papa & Ruchi walked over to the sunset. Andaman was teaching me the difference between sunset & sunrise beaches.
The water was three shades of blue. The sky was all the shades of pink & purple. In this life too, it came down to this: the colours of the sea & the sky. I cried. I had to. How can something so beautiful exist in a life so heavy? It didn’t seem fitting.
I pooped for the first time since I came to Andaman.
I have come to be scared of the mornings. One cannot know what state of mind mummy will wake up in. Today she woke up at 3am, sick. So I woke up anxious. And that was probably the highest point of the day. Things went downhill from there. Back home, Goldie apparently jumped from a two floored building & hurt himself. Our morning was spent worrying about him back home, over no network & bad internet.
Everything became heavy. None of the blue water seemed worth it. Thoughts of death & self destruction came back. I hardly spoke all day. In the evening mummy seemed to have improved. I hate how I wrote that sentence as if it was based on a self recovery system. I assume papa had to burn himself down to get her there.
We went to a beach, Lakshmanpur I think it was called. It was a beach with a sunset. On this trip I understood the difference between sunrise & sunset beaches.
This one had a forest on one side & the setting sun on the other. There was a small cafe selling wood fired pizza.
I saw papa looking into the sea for a long time. I would never know what goes on in his mind, like I wouldn’t of the 100 other people at the beach. We all had one thing in common though, we had all carried our own heaviness to the sea that day.
Palm Swiftlet played in the air. I wonder how they get everywhere, from a town in Maharashtra to the Bay of Bengal, & manage to make me feel at home.
Back in the hotel, we found out that Goldie has broken a leg & has a displaced hip. Mummy wants to go back. So we lie to her. The knowledge of a hurt loved one is a skipped meal in front of having to lie about it.
I sat in the balcony & read. The soothing effect a good book can have when life is burning, I had underrated. Americanah felt like a warm hug.
“She wished, fleetingly, that her mother was not her mother, and for this she felt not guilt and sadness but a single emotion, a blend of guilt and sadness”
Now we could be a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, sister. Four Bs, somewhat love-battered, still standing.
Yesterday was kinder. We went for a dive. I am processing the experience as I write it.
It was disorienting, the idea of being underwater, dependent on an equipment & my handling of it for life. It wasn’t just that. My trainer asked me to jump in the water back first, so I jumped in while still looking at a sick mumma saying hurtful things to papa on the boat.
The instruction was to keep breathing, deeply & uniformly.
The underwater is beautiful but not quite in the way I had expected. How does one describe something in a language that was made for another world? The sky meant nothing, but what is a word for the feeling of being squished while floating? I have not been anywhere that was big, open & claustrophobic at the same time. I would need more colours, deeper perception, a whole new range of adjectives to describe it. Time would have to play a bigger part than just ‘tense’ in the new language.
Every once in a while I would see a school of fish & forget to breathe; it literally took my breath away. I would have to be reminded to keep breathing.
I realised that if you spend enough time anywhere your mind catches up. The thought of mummy, of papa heavy lifting her health with an operated-on heart was heavy even underwater. Looking up was scary. It reminded me just how deep, how far from the world of knowns I was. But I kept breathing, deeply & uniformly. I was surprised how much mind space breathing took. This ‘put your oxygen mask on before assisting others’ mindset had not been achievable on land.
I felt a complete loss of control, a complete surrender. For 10 solid minutes, I let go, accepted life for what it was. The last time I had felt this was outside papa’s operation theatre. Que sera sera I’d thought. Both times.
I cried when I came back up.
Anxiety & PTS blinds the future, makes it hard to invest in anything. What do you do with a GoPro if there is no tomorrow to live for? Why must I go for therapy, study, treat my body well? What do you hook yourself to when all you see in front is a distorted red screen. I came close to answering that question.
When you cannot see the future, just concentrate on the next breath.
Neil island is a tiny place. Imagine it fits on my palm, one edge facing east, the sunrise edge, a bunch of steps in the opposite direction of which is the the sunset edge. We went to a sunrise beach in the afternoon. The beach beamed with life. Crabs lived under each rock, fish & shells swam in every crevice & there was fauna out of Biology textbooks’ syllabus.
Right after, we went to the natural bridge, which was magnificent but I couldn’t care much, having spent all my love & camera battery on the beach. I sat under the bridge & looked at the crowd. We, the tourist bunch, dress alike, inspired by our Feminas, talk alike, want to click similar photos from similar angles. We made the island seem bigger than it was. So I left from there asap.
When I set out to get eye drops for papa-his left eye had been tearing up since the morning, for no reason- I found out that the island had no medical stores; only one government hospital, reminding me just how small of a habitus we had entered. When I got papa to the hospital, the nurse cleaned his eyes & found nothing; it must have be a stress reaction. On a holiday!
R bought vodka from the only alcohol shop on the island: a tiny room under a secluded canopy of trees, that only opened for a few hours in the evening.
Later that night, we ate at Ripon’s again. Pro-tip: Always ask the rickshaw guys where they like to eat.
Ripon is a Bengali artist & chef. Chef during the touristy season & artist rest of the year. After enquiring what everyone wants to eat, he sets out to buy supplies. Having spent hours at his place thus, we went prepared with playing cards. We sat there, playing cards while a lobster was cooked by Ripon & his wife in their hut. He was a warm person; his food likewise felt like a meal cooked by dadi. I physically held myself back from hugging him.
Other people from Neil I didn’t hug for better judgement of social norms:
Mithun, the soft spoken, smiling hotel receptionist who said good morning to us everyday.
The nurse whose experience showed in the way she used her words.
The rickshaw drivers who we came to know by faces, who knew without telling where we needed to go.
My hot scuba instructor.
Havelock is much more inhabited than Neil. In ways it brings back images from Goa but those are forgotten when you notice how densely covered in forest it is. Next time K asks if I am a mountain or a beach person, I won’t say forest person! I’ll say I am an Andaman person, to mean I like forests with beaches next to them. Andaman had taken hundreds of years growing these forests & it shows.
The forest parts of Havelock are stuck in my mind like a hiccup. It is only on a family trip that I don’t stop the car to venture into these places; papa has paper thin patience for straying. In Meghalaya, I jumped in every stream of water on the roadside. In the people parts, it has public carrom boards, where people stand in the evening & play, many cosy cafes boasting Bollywood celebrities’ visits to them.
We stayed in a cosy hotel. The rooms had a wall entirely made of beer bottles & the cafe was under a canopy of nut palms. It had a library of books that mummy picked O’Henry from. That afternoon we sat in the cafe & she read to me. “Man is too thoroughly an egoist not to be also an egotist; if he love, the object shall know it.”
She was still sick, but now she resembled a woman I recognised. The one that gave me a love for words & the emotions they catalyse.
At nights, R & I drank our Vodka & Gin respectively in candle light while reading, writing or playing a lazy version of Cards Against Humanity. I had carried this gin from Pune to home to Bombay to Neil & now Havelock. It had stuck around longer than some of my relationships. At this point it only made sense to christen & befriend it. Simmi didi.
I drank Simmi in an opaque glass so parents won’t be able to tell, while writing postcards to friends- the traditional brown non-photo kind, telling them what we know of life in the Bay of Bengal. The locals gathered at an adjacent table. They were a bunch of migrant hotel staff, scuba instructors & shop keepers. The scuba person spoke of a time in the sea she was surrounded in bubbles. They spoke about when they last went home, of how much they like it here. I was buzzed & easily into these borrowed lives. Isn’t eavesdropping like reading a book?
We went to the biggest beach I ever saw. It was love at first sight for papa. I have never before heard papa wanting to go to the same place again, but to Radhanagar beach we shall go again tomorrow.
We all found our own joys there; papa walked on his own, R built a castle and I lost myself in the forest.
At sunset, I went for a swim, which freaked mumma out. Turns out she has never gone more than ankle deep in the sea before. The sea feels dangerous to her and the idea that I swim in it is blasphemous. She yelled her throat coarse. Amazing how we still learn things about people after 27 years of being together, isn’t it?
So I came out and having no interest in building forts or digging wells, just sat. Which, if you do, you start noticing things. There were a million honeymooning couples around us. It felt like we had invaded a huge honeymoon party. I bumped into photoshooting honeymooners and their photographers at the beaches. That they had carried props made me feel primitive. I realised I will never understand some types of love and certain varieties of happiness.
I could not help but notice different hybrids of honeymooners around after that. I saw the hand-holding-‘baby, how does this look on me?’ honeymooners in shops, the ‘let me feed you’ honeymooners in cafes and selfie takey honeymooners in between. It amazes me that so many people are in love, and that they had all gravitated to the same place.
This template, I realised, doesn’t exist in my software. I wonder what people talk about on honeymoons. Often R and I would play honeymoon couples on car drives around the island. We’d act like people who work in Toronto, who came to India to get married and are in Andamans for the honeymoon till they return. We discussed dreams for our fake futures, anecdotes from our fake families, picked souvenirs in shops for them. We would fake call our respective in-laws and get into deep conversations about the buaji who gave us a lot of money at the wedding!
I am ticking honeymoon off of my list of experiences now.
Warm moments from the beach:
1. A couple enjoys the sunrise, not holding hands, looking in different directions, but together.
2. A father tells his sons a story while the mother takes a walk.
3. A couple sunbathes/naps in a fort, a tiny part of the beach that was only theirs.
I am very happy for them and not jealous at all.
On my last day in the Andamans, I reluctantly took myself around to pick up souvenirs and drop off postcards. We also dragged our tired selves to Ross Island, which is a British base of colonized India, where high officers lived their lavish lifestyles.
Something about being in a history textbook made me feel heavy. Something about this place closed down on me. I was aware that I was walking on the metaphorical dead bodies of a lot of humans.
The state of the place suited the state of my mind; it was a ruin that was taken over by nature. Every building has only enough remaining to help you build a skeleton for your imagination. I walked into a durbar for dancers that came alive and became colorful in my mind. A chapel designed so the sunlight would illuminate the inside. The _ where the soldiers resided still had bunkers in it. I saw where they must wash. I couldn’t help but imagine a bunch of young men laughing and talking from their beds, I imagined them talking in a heavy British accent, then laughing. I imagine all of this in black and white. I see them writing letters. The officials had a sea-facing swimming pool, a distillery for drinking water and gardens to walk in. I went into another walled, taken over by the forest ruin. I looked around. Trying to guess what this place must have been, what people must have done here. All of these places were inhabited by peacocks and deer, as they are even now.
It used to be a bakery where now 2 peahens ate leftover tourist food.
I entered a ruin and found a herd of deer. I had an out of my body experience, the kind that must make people believe in saint men; maybe this is the closest I’ll ever get to being spiritual.
When I came to the Andamans, I had thought of the beaches, the bioluminescence, the mangrove forests, turtle nestings, and everything ethereal I read in ‘the latitudes of longing’. I didn’t get to see some of these things. But there, in the bakery, I thought “This will do”
Now we could be a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, sister. Four B’s, somewhat love-battered, still standing.