Random musings…
The ones that got written down.

the Andamans a travelogue – Chapter1 – getting there

After almost a month of making checklists and then ensuring that the elements were all checked it was now the day to finally push off. I had promised the little one that I would not smoke even one cigarette during this vacation. I smoke two a day which is really just about one a day now, given that I’ve switched to ultra-mild slim ones with a view to completely give up at some point. The dilemma on the previous evening, and this did not figure on any of those aforementioned lists, was “what if I really feel like smoking?”… So the evening before the flight while on the walk with the kids to get last-minute supplies for the trip I also picked up a box of nicotine replacement gums. Happy to report that during the ten days of vacation I chewed a total of one gum and that too on the way to the airport. Essentially, mischief managed.

We were headed to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which are a part of our huge nation that people do not really hear much about unless there’s a Tsunami or if some tribals bump off an overenthusiastic American tourist. They are so far away from the mainland and yet so much of our history lives there. The Ross island penal colony was established here in 1858 to isolate political prisoners who were part of the 1857 rebellion, India’s first recorded attempt at freedom from British Raj. The sheer horrors that those early exports to this Godless and pointless place are not really things that people now will ever be able to comprehend. Let’s just say that the English knew how to break a populations soul, better than the Nazis. I believe it is the English who had mastered the practice of extreme torture way before it became mainstream with the Nazi Human experimentation. The mind is where a rebellion is born, that is where it lives, grows and from where it propagates. If you can break the mind you can break all dissent. Today, with predominantly right-wing regimes all across the world, one does get to see a revival of these tactics though in a much more civilized manner. It’s there depending on what your perspective is. The birth of the Andamans or rather the rebirth as a British colony was for the sinister purpose of breaking the soul of the freedom movement. It was from this sinister birthing that a beautiful island group has emerged some 200 years hence, for without a doubt with it’s 84%+ forest cover Andaman islands are breathtakingly surreal. There are 537 mapped islands in this group of these only 12 are inhabited the rest are forest ….possibly the last remaining parts of the earth truly untouched by human hands. .

There is practically no industry in these islands which means no effluents and that translates into pristine seas all around with shades of azure and turquoise that make one wonder “what have we done to our world back home”. The water is so clear that one afternoon standing at a jetty waiting to board the ferry back to Port Blair one chanced to look down at the water, saw sand of the floor of the sea and a little while later noticed coral formations barely 10 meters from shore, yes multicolored fish were not far behind…. that’s how clean it is.

The distance from the mainland has ensured that facilities are not very well developed. The first thing that strikes you as you land at the Port Blair airport, which bears the name of one of the most talked-about freedom fighters nowadays the Veer Savarkar International Airport, is that you have just disconnected from your world. Internet does not work. You would be well advised to not waste time trying to hit refresh again and again. It’ll just drain your phones battery and cause you unnecessary stress. Instead focus on having a vacation. That being said one must also add that in case of dire emergencies head over to the local BSNL office and you might get lucky as well as find some decent network coverage. Now disconnect and go have a vacation.

So D-day I woke up at 0300Hrs. The plan was to get out of the house by 4:15 and reach the airport for the 0615Hrs flight. Yeah well like who reaches two hours before departure? I had not packed so that’s the first thing I did…. three white tees, three white shirts, two linen pants, two shorts, undies, boxers to sleep in… beach shoes, trekking shoes, three pairs of socks…. done. Rest of it we can always buy there. Wasn’t going to bother carrying the shaving kit either… always leave behind what you can buy anywhere you are going. Woke up the wife and kids after taking a shower and shaving (that shave would last me three days so it gives me three days to find a shop that sells razors, aftershave the works… ample amount of time you’d reckon). Younger one woke up like a spring the elder one also woke up like a spring only difference is that the first spring was coiled the other one wasn’t so much. Anyway after around 10 minutes of negotiation and talking to Ria did come around and woke up. Each of us had one hand baggage and one checking bag. One had thought that would be reasonably OK. Well that’s till I saw the luggage. We were both carrying our laptops as well just in case a work emergency comes up. In my line of work that’s more a norm than the exception. Little did we know about the enormity of the Internet situation. So yeah pretty much a mountain. Somehow though it was all manageable because except for the bag with the laptops, kindle, camera and phone chargers all other bags were light.

We did a final round of checks, all windows, cooking gas supply line, geysers, taps, lights, router…. everything closed, switched off, secured. Everything on the checklist ticked off once more… especially tangle teasers or else the girls would have a battle royale every time they need to share it. All done, everyone had their books for the flights in their handbags… good out of the door at 0355Hrs… we beat the clock.

yeah a lot of bags….

Picture done (I seriously need to get used the remote control on my phone rather than putting the camera on timer and running to get into the frame)…. let’s go! Jasbir uncle who had given me a wake-up call at 0305AM was on his way and we reached the foyer at the same time. He’s a strapping young lad all of 21 years old and recently bought a cool cab which he uses to drop off passengers. Ok, I was slightly inaccurate there… he’s around 75year old now. His sons are well settled in cushy jobs in Canada and the US. He himself lives in a building nearby with his supremely embarrassed wife. After he retired from his job he decided he was not going to become some grumpy old grandpa so he landed up at the local Taxi stand and for the past 15 odd years he’s been driving a taxi. His wife and kids nagged him a lot about it so he stopped sitting at the taxi stand and instead now does trips only when people call him directly. So yeah whenever I need a reliable drop for myself or for parents Jasbir uncle is whom I call. His fare “whatever you wish”…. My incentive, the stories. He insisted on carrying the heaviest bag from the lift to the car…. I had to literally wrest it from him. Bags miraculously settled comfortably into the boot of his car and we pushed off. A little way from home Ira told him we’re off to Port Blair. That set him off. He told us his secret “I used to be in the Indian Navy when I was a younger man, I’ve never told anyone about it ever but because you mentioned Port Blair I thought I’ll share it. I have been there with the INS Kavaratti (the older one that was decommissioned in 1986) on which I was stationed. It’s a wonderful place you will thoroughly enjoy yourselves.”… then he told us about all the islands and how the Indian government experimented with settling the Punjabi refugees from Pakistan after partition in the Andamans. He told us how he served for ten years and then was put on reserve. That led to the story of how the reservists feel cheated by the false claims of the government about the OROP disbursements. That went on for a while. Next he delved into Jalianwala Bagh and how Udhdham Singh slayed Sir Dwyer (whom he kept confusing with General Dyer) slowly working his way into Indira Gandhi and Operation bluestar, Bhindranwale and so on and so forth. IT was thoroughly stimulating and to an extent informative discourse. By the time he got to Bhindranwale we were at the airport and I promised to call him a day before we were scheduled to arrive back so that he could pick us up and complete the story. Slightly heavy fare to step into a vacation with however history gets me horny like hell…. ok just figuratively speaking let’s reword it to say “gets me excited”…. and I did find out about the resettlement experiment in the Andamans besides I got pointed into the direction of research into two different episodes…. good byes done, luggage collected we moved on along….

We had done a web check-in so just to entertain Ria and Ira, while we stood with the check-in baggage, we told them to go print the boarding passes at the kiosk. Responsible tasks do tend to make them feel important which ensures peace while the task is underway. Otherwise waiting for ten minutes while the queue moves at a snail’s pace is bound to make them restless and cranky. Just as they got back from the adventure “of printing boarding passes” we reached the head of the queue. Miraculously the check-in baggage was within the weight limit. Bags checked in we proceeded for the security check. The girls were extremely amused about something and were standing in front of the conveyor and giggling away as I made my way to the wand guy… It took me a long while as I had to unpack the two laptops, the camera, chargers, kindle, USB drives ughh… technology. As I was getting into the queue I heard the security guard tell the guy behind me to remove his shoes and belt as well. The first realization was that I was not wearing a belt…. forgot my belt. Second realization was I would need to get out of the queue, take off my shoes and then make my way back in…. on impulse asked him “do I also need to remove my shoes”… he looked at my Lunar Glides, looked up at my nicely ironed white linen shirt and strategically distressed but not exactly torn jeans… thought for a second about my not too big but not too absent either stomach overhang, did some advanced maths about the amount of time the whole exercise would hold up the queue and came back almost instantly with his answer “no, you’re OK!”. Phew! So I got the metal detector thing done and came back to the conveyor where the girls were still giggling. I thought maybe I forgot to wear pants and maybe they’ll just tell me about it now. Ria blurts out the question “they made you remove your shoes naa?!!”…. “aaaaha!!” I shook my head at all three of them and said “no” and proceeded to pick up the things. In the background, three jaws hit the floor… “How come?” “didn’t they see your name?” “Are they real police or just acting?” “All the other men had to remove their shoes and belt also”….. well what can I say…. “a white linen shirt worn smartly takes you places”… I just smiled at them mutts and we all moved on to the holding area… water bottles filled up again we sat for as long as possible. Kid asked “why are we not going and standing in the queue? Are you guys planning on missing the flight?” To which we explained, “What’s the point of going and standing at the end of a mile-long queue when you know you can always join the queue when it’s extremely short, like 3-4 people from the desk?”…. Seriously I find the sense of urgency at boarding and deplaning slightly comical. It’s like people are running without any idea what would happen if they walked or just sat and saw the traffic go by instead. Relax, everyone will get to get on to that bus, everyone will fly. Just don’t relax too much and certainly don’t fall asleep.

Every time I’m walking with the girls I get a lot of smiles. Earlier I used to confuse them for admiration, for me being a good dad/husband and taking interest in the kids, listening to the wife talk. How naive and idiotic I was. Now I know it’s them not me. So as we climbed up the stairs and entered the flight I just plastered a faint smile on my face as the air hostesses made small talk with Ira and Ria. I mean yeah well thank you for appreciating them, keep them please I’d rather just leave them here with you for the rest of the flight. Feed them every five minutes and yes if possible tell them some stories. But then I knew they would probably hand me over to airport security if I started grovelling like that. We found our seats and luckily since the girls each had their own seat numbers printed on the boarding passes it was not much of a debate. Ira sat across the aisle on the aisle seat I got the middle seat SG to the left and Ria on the window next to me. Ira was more than happy to get the seat across from us as it made her feel all grown up. Well! that was until the lady sitting next to her intervened and helped her put on her seat belt and adjusted her backpack under the seat in front. It was quite hilarious watching it happen. Ira trying to do it on her own and her neighbour thinking she needs help diving right in with a helping hand, Ira making a move to try and tell her she had it under control and being kind of over ruled. So much for independence.

The first hop was to Hyderabad, city of Nizams. We have had a long relationship with the city, Joy and Tanya are again back there, my parents continue to own land near the airport and yes this is the city where I did one of the many truly reckless things in my life. It was actually a funny thing in retrospect. We, Sonali and I were traveling from Bhubaneswar to Mumbai, I did that a couple of times without telling the parents about it during college days. They to this day think that the only time I travelled cattle class (unreserved) was when I went from Bhubaneswar to Chennai to meet them when they were returning from the US and heading straight to meet the younger brothers at Bangalore. There were two other times as well. So anyway that wasn’t the Hyderabad connection, the Hyderabad connection was that the train stopped at Hyderabad, we had a couple of hundred odd bucks, the train was going to stay for around 30 minutes, I knew there was a Paradise Biryani shop outside the station from talking to my coachmates, this was y2k the world had survived and Paradise still served the best Biryani in Hyderabad…. so we got off as soon as the train stopped…. hand in hand we rushed up the FOB, down the FOB and out the station praying all the time that there wont be a TC to stop us for checking hte tickets…. once outside it was pretty easy to locate the restaurant. The bad part was that the place was swarming. I saw a waiter, light bulb, grabbed a chair and waved for him to come over. Handed him a tenner (decent enough tip at that time) and asked him to get me two packets of Biryani one mutton and one chicken. He helped us cut the queue and got us the biryani while the rest of the customers continued to jostle at the counter. Another mad dash back to the train, up the FOB, down the FOB and the train starts to move. Another light bulb, we jumped into the nearest coach and then made our way back to Sonalis‘ coach through the vestibule. Tom Cruise had Mission Impossible, we had Mission Biryani under our belts… literally. So yeah that was a different age, almost 20 years now. After that one I did a number of trips to Hyderabad in fact the first time that I took any flight was to Hyderabad from Mumbai, it was consultancy for someone setting up a call center there, they wanted to meet investors and needed a technical tactial member on the team. I wasn’t interested in moving to Hyderabad but went anyway and helped them take off. So anyway the first-hop Hyderabad.

sometimes ads do make sense…

Three hours pickling at Hyderabad airport was probably going to be a test in endurance. I expected the kids to go ballistic and quit the vacation here itself. Surprisingly that did not happen. We got off the flight then took the scenic route to make our way to the transfer desk. They guided us to the security check and that’s where I realized I am a marked man. Again I unpacked the 2 laptops, kindle, chargers, camera… yeah you get the picture (pun intended) from the cabin bag. Again the strategically placed question about “do you want me to take off my shoes?” and again the tacit approval “no no you’re fine”…you’re clean-shaven, behind you yes you sir with the fuzzy overgrown chin please take off your belt, wallet and shoes as well (so much for the hobo rugged look… eat that Virat Kohli fans). As I stepped back up in front of the conveyor to collect my devices the guard manning the X-Ray machine asked me “are you carrying a small knife”! I was like “yeah with my name, totally that’s the only thing my bag is full of you know”. I said, “no, why?”. So he asks me to open the bag which I do quite eagerly wondering what did he find. Inside there’s a pouch (one has to remember that I am carrying a bag that usually doubles up as Sonalis’ overnight bag whenever she needs to travel, it’s the bigger laptop bag with space for two machines and then some). The pouch is hers. So we start emptying it… USB drives, ISP dongle, a set of earphones, visiting cards, yada yada yada and ALLEN KEY!!! The guy latches on to the Allen key “sir this is not allowed in cabin baggage”. I’m like I know that I am just wondering which bolt was this associated with and why is it in the bag. Anyway, I signed the register and moved on with the rest of the stuff. So long Allen key you will be missed. Of course, the kids couldn’t stop laughing. SG had no idea either why she was lugging an Allen key to work on a daily basis. I of course, feigned shock “you wanted me strip-searched and tortured by those CISF blokes that’s why you slipped it into the pouch and put the pouch in the laptop bag….. you evil evil person” …. all round laughter and we revisited the joke at the two security checks on the way back as well when I kept the pouch out on a separate tray for the scanners…. much to the amusement of the girls standing on the other side of the carousel. Funny though how Mumbai security did not catch the Allen key….. or wait was there another angle to this?!!! Oh!

Hyderabad airport waiting lounge area is like any other airport waiting lounge, very costly! I saw the familiar sight of RAW Pressery cold-pressed juices when I went to get us coffee. Kids love the Valencia Orange one so I figured let us get that for them. Picked up the bottle and kept it at the billing counter. The clerk says “that’ll be 480 bucks sir”. I was about to hand over the card and then suddenly remembered that I am not Jeff Bezos. “How?” I asked. “Sir the coffees are 180 bucks, the juice is 270 plus taxes”. I looked at him like a deer who has been mortally wounded, is very sad and has just realized that he’s not Jeff Bezos. Out of concern, the guy asked: “how much is this outside?” I told him “80 bucks”…. at this point the clerk smiled such an amazingly beautiful smile. It conveyed the message without him having to say anything “these airport people are a complete and utter rip off” being the message, delivered with the smile and head shake. I said “take that off” the kids will manage just fine with the water they are carrying besides what they don’t know doesn’t hurt them, I never said I was going to get juice for them I just said coffee. The coffee was ok I like it strong and it was strong. Though in retrospect so is the coffee I get at Navratna back home if I make eye contact with the guy taking the order and explain to him how I need it made…. and it costs a third of what it costs at Hyderabad airport. Aah well I guess it’s a vacation one needs to let some stuff slide… like the fact that there was an Allen key in my bag which mysteriously did not get detected by Mumbai security or that I’m not Jeff Bezos… Once we were done we discussed and decided we should maybe move to the boarding area and wait the rest of the ninety-odd minutes there, get some work done as well once settled in. As I was getting up a kid sitting on the table nearby spoke in a pretty menacing tone “Sit down Annu and finish your food without any more drama!”. The wife and kids looked at my visibly shocked face and burst into laughter. Turns out the kid was not addressing me (my daak naam is Annu) but his younger sibling who was throwing a tantrum with the food on their table. I just shook my head and continued to walk as Ria held on to my arm and teased me about how even little kids knew how much of a pest I was.

As we were walking to the escalators that would take us down to gate number 104 we walked past a shop that was advertising stoles at a huge discount, everything at flat 599. SG and I had gone to Dalhousie for our honeymoon, there on mall road she had fancied a stole which was pink in color. It was pretty cold and while I am more used to cold weather SG was having a tough time, and anyway it was something she liked, we always get whatever she likes. So we walked along around Dalhousie with SG wearing a pink dress, with a pink cardigan and now a pink stole around her neck as well. At one point we walked past this local pink apple walking with her mother… she turned around and pointing to SG shouted out “Hey, Pinky!!”. We laughed. That pink stole lives on and is her favorite 15 years and two months on. She insists it is very soft and just the right amount of warmth that she needs during Mumbai winters (what winters? some may say). However lately a lot of people including her mom, my mom, her kids, my kids (oh ok that’s the same kids) have told her that it looks like a rag now. So yeah she has been meaning to buy a new stole. We stopped at this shop looked at the ones on display and moved on, SG was of the opinion that she needed to explore Amazon before deciding. She always needs to first consult Amazon before any buy decision which is great I guess for everyone. We found seats in the waiting area and settled in. I wanted to walk around to complete my daily target of 10K steps and SG had a foot ache which was acting up (plantar) so after settling them in I went off on my expedition. With the back pack on the walk from the aircraft through security, the rip off coffee place and finally to the waiting lounge had seemed like a pretty long distance. This time around two rounds and I just clocked 3200 steps. On the second round I stopped over at the FabIndia store. Looked at the stole options they had, none, and checked a Pashmina option that the guy did suggest. At 6.6K it sounded like a steal (for them) and certainly not the sort of thing I could buy unassisted. Moving on I stepped into Chumbak followed by the Bombay Store. The girl showed me some really beautiful options and the prices also sounded very competitive. In fact I finalized one of them and was about to pay when doubt crept in and I got a call from the wife “boarding announced, where are you?”. I figured if I did get this one and it did not make the grade I might get roasted, bad. Not that that has ever stopped me from doing anything, ever, but then lately with her plantar, diabetes, borderline messy work place dynamics and the fact that she’s going to be spending 10 full days with the three of us nut cases… I didn’t want to add to he misery. I mean just fly under the radar bro when in doubt just fly under the radar. Besides what they don’t know doesn’t hurt them right?! So I decided to dive right under the radar and apologized to the poor assistant at the shop (not poor as in financially I meant poor for having to deal with slouches who can’t make up their minds).

Ever noticed how the boarding queue appears to snake for miles. Probably not but then that’s probably because you’re in the queue. I am never in that queue. I sit and watch people shift their weight from one foot to the other while watching the boarding girl scan boarding passes of people up front and wave them along. I always get up when there are four people left in the queue not one more not one less. By the time I join the queue it’s the people and then there is me. The bus will take all of us to the plane, the boarding pass mentions my seat number in bold and the overhead hold always has enough space for my laptop bag so why jostle?! In fact oftentimes I’ve noticed that the last 4-10 people get a new bus to ferry them to the plane. Even in that I prefer to head straight for the front gate and not crowd around the central one which is usually the tendency that most people have. Just get in park yourself up front for the short hop (standing is just fine you’re going to be sitting for the rest of the flight anyway). It’s incredible how much abundance and happiness there is in the world if you set your sights on the stuff that most of the populace is actively trying to avoid. For instance I always run or walk against traffic, helps me notice and avoid what’s coming at me rather than having to keep looking over my shoulder, people hate walking in the summers and I have noticed lately that I love it, just slap on a cap and go walk because pretty soon the summers would be gone and the rains would be soggying up everything including your lungs and that’s when you’ll miss summer…. the sun dries up your lungs and your towels at least. So yeah think ahead, rationalize and slow down rather than fall over each other trying to be the first one on the plane that’s anyway going to take everyone who was waiting for it at the boarding lounge. Save the competitiveness for where it really matters, like when sitting down for lunch with a bunch of carnivores around a bucket of mutton roghan josh, yeah at that time by all means go all out and attempt to turn the bucket upside down in your own plate first. The others can wait for a refill!

Once on the plane Ira was in for a surprise the same folk who were sitting next to her on the flight from Mumbai were again sitting next to her on this hop as well. I doubled up with laughter looking at her expression standing behind her in line waiting to get to my seat. The couple smiled beatifically at the abandoned child in welcome. The kid smiled back and whispered to me “Pappa those people who came with us from Mumbai are here as well!” I asked you want to switch seats? She said no it’s ok. I found the nook for my bag in the overhead cabin and we all settled in for the one fifty minute flight. SG got the middle seat this time and Ria got the window, I was on the aisle watching intently while the air-hostess explained how to fill up air in the life jackets and how it was a cognizable offence to take the life jackets out unless asked to do so. I always listen intently but from the corner of my eye noticed there was someone else as well craning her neck and trying to follow the instructions. Ria aww my baby was being what she always is a clone of her father, scary scary scary thought for the whole wide world but then there she was making the air hostess smile at the funny sight of everyone else dozing off while these two jokers were watching her like hawks. As we took off Ira leaned over and said I’m going to the air hostesses. I was like what what? No you can’t be a pest. That’s when Ria also joined in and explained: “oh you know what this one did on the Mumbai Hyderabad flight?”. Slightly worried I asked “what?” so Ria explained how they had gone to the restroom and there Ira struck up a conversation with the girls in the galley and made them explain how stuff worked. Then she asked how does the faucet in the loo worked and they explained to her very patiently and then wonder of wonders actually let her in on a secret, they have a separate crew restroom which they let her use. Ok, this was TMI for me I said aah well go have fun just don’t irritate them into spiking my coffee with cinnamon, on second thoughts I won’t have coffee on the plane.

A little later once the kids were back from their meet and greet with the crew a common refrain went up “I’m hungry!!”. Flipping through the inflight magazine earlier Ria had pointed out that if I pay using MasterCard I could get a 20% discount, that kid will save me a fortune the way she’s going. I was like yeah right! on most days card payments do not work on the ground outside of Mumbai (and sometimes within Mumbai as well). But anyway we requested four sandwiches (cheese and lettuce with green chutney after confirming that the green chutney wasn’t going to be spicy) and I stated that I wanted to try my luck with the card payment. She said sure let me see if we packed the POS machine with us while taking off. I expected to pay by cash sans the discount but then wonder of wonders I saw her walk out of the cockpit with the card machine in hand! I was like holy smoking monkey eyeballs… 20% discount here I come. It worked and I was like wow I just joined the mile high club again (don’t ask don’t tell)… That’s when the pilot came back on air to announce we were descending to land.

looking out the window one realized this was going to be a beautiful ten days

The view from up there was completely magical. Azure and turquoise and green was all one could see for as far as one could see. With this glowing white border around all the islands, the beaches!! Beautiful with a cherry on top, it was already a blissful vacation even from up here. I was thinking of all the treks I would go on, all the beaches we would comb and all the seafood… oh yes the seafood. Peace! As we touched down a collective groan went up. We had made a pretty rough landing however after the turbulence which we had seen earlier this was something I was expecting. The weather here was more like start of monsoons already and headwinds were strong. It was a surprise that we had not flown through any rain. I was feeling slightly shortcharged considering “hey I paid for an air crash in one of those Sentinelese inhabited jungles as well. I want a refund…. ok partial…. ok one life vest? umm… ok I’ll get off you misers…. at least let me get my kids… ok you keep them… bye” (no nothing of that sort happened… though in hind sight… I should have tried). So anyway as we touched down everyone sprang up. Instantly the pilot came on air again “ladies and gentlemen since we are a half hour before time the ground staff has not been able to arrange for the ladder. If you wish to take your chances with the 50 foot drop please sign the indemnity forms in your back seat pockets and proceed to the rear gates otherwise please stay seated”. Most of them actually all of them groaned again and sat down. Then I witnessed the most remarkable thing on a flight ever, a sniper hidden in the galley area, sitting on the jump seat. The moment someone would get up pat came the shot “maam sit down”, “sir please sit down”, “sir please be seated”, “sir please wait”. Boom boom boom even if some poor old bloke got up just to stretch his legs, boom! I wanted to run to her and give her a big hug and tell her “baby this is exactly how you deal with these idiots, boom… boom boom…. boom boom boom”… just that she would have shot me down as well, I kept seated smiling blissfully “Man proposes, God disposes! there is justice after all”. Finally after around 30% of the plane had been mowed down by fearless Nadia hiding behind the curtains with her sniper rifle the ground crew managed to align the ladder. In the meanwhile, Ira was having a super time looking out the window observing how the bags were being unloaded and identifying each of our four bags as they came off the baggage hold. Quite an exciting thing to watch for a seven-year-old actually even for someone my age. Finally, as the doors were opened everybody rushed out. We were possibly the last ones off, as usual, and the recipients of some genuinely warm and relieved smiles from the cabin crew. Thank you for flying Indigo next time try swimming we hate your condescending politeness but your kids are wonderful so yeah it’s ok. As I stepped onto terra firma again the same dialog that always goes off went off in my head “Sarzameene Hindustan, Assalaamwalaikum. Mera naam Imtiaz Khan hai, Ishq mera mazhab, mohabbat mera imaan hai…” interrupted by an insistent little voice chiming in “paapu the bus is here. Let’s go…”

The airport is a quaint little affair with the bus not really serving much of a purpose except maybe keeping the herd together and avoiding situations where the ground staff have to intervene and tell people to not take selfies with the planes. Seriously it’s an epidemic, the selfie bug refuses to die down. I actually witnessed one of the ground crew persons politely shout at an reasonably decent looking uncle asking him to not take pictures while waiting at the tarmac for the bus. At normal airports, photography is kind of frowned upon though not entirely illegal however at Port Blair airport it is actually a prohibited activity considering it shares airside facilities with INS Utkrosh the first naval air station in Andaman and Nicobar islands. Basically, it’s a defence establishment and taking pictures is illegal owing to security concerns. This was clearly announced inside the flight however obviously this too required sniper Nadia for enforcing it on the ground. Then again when on vacation how else would you let the poor sots sitting at home watching reruns of Friends and munching on last nights pizza know that you’re having a whale of a time. I mean it really didn’t happen if you did not post an airport selfie and checked in at each and every airport en route! I am pretty sure most of those airheads posting all those airport check-ins are firmly convinced that doing that is part of the process and that the flight would not take off unless they posted to Insta, FB and twitter that they are flying from Amritsar to Bhatinda (or Chandigarh or Bhusaval). Aah well, it takes all types I guess. Inside the terminal building, the carousel is pretty small and luggage appears almost instantly as we discovered funnily. The ladies made a beeline for the loo and I was left holding all cabin baggage.

As I waited I called up Lieutenant Abhishek, our contact from INS Jawara. He was the appointed point man to chaperon us from the airport. My younger brother Golu, who had insisted that we travel to the Andamans and explore the beauty of this ignored and forgotten part of India, was posted here till about 15 days back. We were supposed to be meeting up after almost two years. At the last moment after we had booked our flights he was shipped off to Kolkata and as of right now was on patrol duty to ensure free and fair elections. We all know the elections were free and fair now, don’t we? So anyway here we were. Golu is the XO for his ship and he had orders to proceed with the ship to GRC. The ship would be getting it’s POH inspection (exactly one year since commissioning). He had left behind two officers who would be taking care of any liaisoning and paperwork back at Port Blair. One of these gentlemen was now given the additional charge of transporting us to our digs. Essentially we had been booked into the spectacular guest house at the Command House for INS Jarawa. A place reserved for the visiting families of officers stationed in the Andamans or ex-servicemen. He answered on the second ring and the first contact made we agreed to locate each other outside the terminal after I had collected the bags. At this point I was feeling much like a cartoon character, holding three cabin bags one pink, one yellow and another a deeper shade of hot pink while also carrying the big ass camera and the laptop(s) bag. Though that was really not the reason to feel comical. The real reason was that I was standing outside the ladies restroom (a bit out of the way) so laden and watching with growing horror as the carousel started moving. Our luggage was doing trips around the hall in front of my eyes and I was having memories of Kolkata. What if these girls do not come back in time and this luggage goes off to the security hold?

The year was 2011, actually, it was December 2011. We had received a call from Kolkata, Sonalis’ dad had suffered a heart attack. We got ourselves on the first flight and landed in Kolkata late at night. Ria was super excited to see her uncle who had come to pick us up late at night considering taxis might not have been available. Ira was still four months away (read in mammas tummy). We got our bags and went off. Upon reaching home and the initial catching up etc. SG asked me for the baby bag so that she could change Ria. Turns out that the bag was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t in the car either. That’s when we realised that we had packed a bunch of cash in that same bag (along with the Huggies), just in case it’s required for emergency expenses. Essentially it wasn’t just a matter of breaking into the nearby Pharmacy and stealing some diapers. So yeah next up we landed up at the airport (3 AM now) and explained the situation. After some amount of back and forth, the security guards understood and led us into a cabin where the officer in charge was sitting. It turns out the bag was sitting next to the row of chairs near the baggage carousel. Earlier when we had arrived Ria and SG had went and sat down there waiting for me to fetch our checked-in baggage. We had forgotten to pick up the bag and it was spotted by a security guard. After some degree of panic, it was inspected by Commander K9. Thankfully we were not packing any soiled diapers or other incendiaries else this would’ve been all over the news by now. Soon a soldier entered with the K9 as well as the bag which was in tatters now. I was crestfallen, “no way the money is in there any more,” I thought to myself. The officer was joined by a couple more guys who asked me questions about the contents and finally after verification, they handed over everything, including the cash, back to me. There was a five hundred rupee payment for their troubles and a receipt I had to sign. They apologized for the condition of the bag but explained that they had to slice it up as it was part of the SOP considering it could also have been packing an IED. I acknowledged their regret, thanked them for doing so much for our safety behind the scenes and made my way back home. This baby bag was the first thing I had presented to the wife after the kid was born and it had travelled with us to so many places over the past 3 years. Yet it was intact and good as new even now, ready to do service for Ira as well. But now it was all sliced up. SG was sad that that happened. Needless to say, I landed up at the local mother care and got her a replacement the very next day, an exact replica. That sliced up bag still sits somewhere in a box in one of our homes, nostalgia.

Breaking out of my reverie I was yanked into the current scene unfolding in front of me. If these guys did not come out right about now then I would need to go to the security hold and collect four pieces of slashed up luggage because that carousel was slowing down already. Thankfully just as the luggage belt came to a halt the girls came out gasping for breath and making noises about how unclean the toilet was. I didn’t have much time for that information exchange so I just handed them their multicoloured bags and ran to the belt. The security guards were walking leisurely towards the remaining four bags on the carousel. I beat them to it and loaded up my hurriedly grabbed trolley. Phew! Just in time… Ria who by now had understood what was happening also grabbed a trolley and took two of the bags off mine. Luggage secured we started moving towards the exit with kids and SG all going on in one single voice about how yucky the toilets were. I thought to myself “I don’t think there is any clean toilet in the world except the ones at home for these three” and nodded in agreement, yeah I know, to which they all responded with a smack on my arms “as if you saw inside!”

Stepping out into the arrival area it didn’t take long to identify Abhishek. They all look exactly the same, straight, strong, no-nonsense, buzz cut. I waved to him he waved back. We walked with the driver to the waiting taxi, “an ambassador”!! Like wow, this was a rarity, in fact, the kids had never seen one before. Ria was confused about the handle “how does one open this?” so I helped her with the button press handle which I don’t think is there on any of the cars sold nowadays. The spaciousness and sheer power that oozes from the personality of an Ambassador, it’s difficult to describe, can only be experienced. Todays cars, in comparison, are either elephants (Endeavor, Compass, Innova etc.) or midgets (i10, celerio, Vento, Punto). The regal elegance of an Ambassador is missing in any of the cars on offer today. So yes that sign back at Hyderabad airport about “Royalty being back”, it was not just a sign, it was a sign of things to come. Good start.

a dying breed…

Lt. Abhishek pushed off on his motorcycle leading the way as we followed in our royal ride. It was a pretty bright sunny day not much different from the weather we had just left behind at Bombay. Our driver was an amiable chap with a pretty thick Tamil accent. We got talking and I asked him “it doesn’t seem like it has started raining yet?” he dodged an oncoming moped loaded with chickens and replied “naw naw naw it is raining very heavily aasterday afternwoon, see this land is such that all the water gets absorbed and the sun is so straang that even if it rains hevvily it will be appear as if it has not ryened at all within fifteen minutes. In a way this is good only because otherwise the amount of rain we get it would be a swamp this place.” So ok I understood that monsoons have arrived and it has started raining here already, our plans would need to be tailored with rains in mind. I had been going through the Andamans chapter of The Lonely Planet India past few weeks and had a fair amount of idea about what all we wanted to look at. So I reeled off the names of all the places that I had read about “Corbyn’s Cove beach”, “Chidiya Tapu”, “Redskins”, “Baratang”, “Rangat”, “Havelock”, “Radhanagar”, “Ross island”, “Cellular Jail”… to every name I took his singular response with the classic south Indian head nod was an emphatic “jaa-ney-sakte“. Now I am a person who takes pride in my abilities to immerse. It’s a quality that made my mom often shout at me and sometimes even whack me because apparently when I am absorbing my environment and becoming one with it I have this habit of starting with the accent and mannerisms of the person who I am interacting with. So if I am talking to someone with a lisp I end up lisping myself, a person with a particular twitch transfers it to me within the first few minutes of starting to talk to me… so on and so forth. To my mom and even some of these people whom I inadvertently copy it comes across as rude and immature. I in my defence have never even noticed this particular trait. I feel this has to do with my belief that when in Rome do the Romans (I absolutely refuse to eat food that reminds me of “home” when I am travelling I want the local stuff even if it is boiled monkey eyeballs and aligator soup). So yeah his “jaa-ney-sakte” was soon copied by me and in the rear seat my clone “the Ria”. However I was kind of not getting what he was saying, you see “jaa-ney-sakte” in hindi means “you cannot go” (jaa nahin sakte). So was this bloke telling me that I cannot go to any of these places because of the rains?! Like ten days in the room doing nothing but shouting at the mutts to keep it down?! I was looking forward to a vacation but this guy here was saying that because of the rains I just might have invited myself into the madhouse inhabited by Ria and Ira, the craziest human beings ever let loose on humanity.

After a short 12 minute hop, while I was still lost in my thoughts trying to figure out what were we walking into, we reached the gates of the Command House INS Jarawa and were greeted by a soldier who practically jumped out of the scenery battle tank and all. Well, at the time it did seem like there was a battle tank strapped to his shoulder. When I told him that we were guests at Waves and he checked his manifest then tallied my ID he stepped aside and let us pass. Abhishek was already at the reception wondering where we got stuck. I explained about the over-enthusiastic guard while unloading the Amby. I tried paying for the trip but Abhishek would have none of it. At that point I had made a mental note to take him out for a beer, which regrettably now never really happened, so yeah I’m indebted to Lt. Abhishek. Meanwhile, there were three very amused girls in the rear seat shaking their heads looking at my confused expression. I asked “what?” they kind of in unison replied “jaaneysaktey” and that’s when it dawned on me, the bloke was telling me that I “can” actually go to all these places that I was rattling off to him. He was using a colloquial intonation of the word to convey agreement and not “jaa nahin sakte” (can’t go) rather he was saying “jaaney sakte” (can also go). The confusion earlier was reinforced because of the accompanying head nod. So much for my conversation skills, all was not lost after all… more importantly all along these girls sitting in the back seat knew exactly what confusion was going on in my head, all along they knew and said nothing… such cruel people.

We were shown to our quarters after making the entries into the register and handing in our IDs. Abhishek left with the assurance that if I have any requirement or emergency I should feel free to call him. The kids were ecstatic “This room has an AC and a TV… we’re never getting out of here” …we have neither of those two things back home since we live next to the sea on the 20th floor so the view makes up for tV and the strong winds ensure it’s pleasant all year round without needing an aircon… so yeah these two things is all you need for a vacation for my kids. The nameplate on the room said OOI-II, I realized that was short for “Old Officers Institute”, well not that old but I get it I do need to lose a lot of those pounds that have come back after I stopped running my daily half marathons three years back. The resident cook came over from the attached cafeteria. Ammu, wow what an exceptionally caring person and a great cook. We had home-cooked dinners on most of our stay at Port Blair thanks to Ammu. It was quite an education as well. I came back enlightened about the value of control over your food intake. So yeah Ammu came over and we explained to her that we are voracious eaters, we want one full goat and a couple of five-pound salmons on a nightly basis for dinner. Funnily though, she wasn’t taking notes, we got exactly eight pieces of chicken on day seven. That was all the nonvegeterian food Ammu would let us ingest. Yet no complaints at all this was an education. The food was rationed and after the initial incredulity of it sank in one realized “this is correct, this is how it should be”. Two rotis per person, dal enough to serve one bowl per person, one vegetable preparation enough to serve a bowl to each person and rice again not a bucket full of the stuff, just adequate enough to make you feel happy. When we got back this was the first thing I told Kulsum, our “housekeeper-baby sitter-cook-cleaner-procurement expert-general know it all” since June 2005. I told her “do not put all the food that you cook on the dining table from now on, also start reducing the quantity of food you prepare. She kind of agreed went into Judge Dredd mode and now if you as much as ask for one extra roti she’s like “no, you told me to ration”. Which is all great it’s just that the food is so damn good how does one ration (one tries).

So anyway after a round of quick introductions and explaining to her that we would like to have dinner at the attached Wafes cafeteria we got out and decided to foot it to the market area and look for one of the many eateries that we were told existed there. The idea was to catch the fag end of lunch time and also get out of the rest house lest we just sleep off the rest of the day. As soon as we got out of the Command House I saw the signboard for Megapode Resorts and instead of turning right to walk down Delanipur hill and into town we turned left and into Megapode resort. This is a resort run by a Government undertaking and it is up there with the best of the best in terms of staffing. We had most of our lunches while at Port Blair at the Megapode resort. The view is truly surreal (mind you, not the Ivanka Trump short walk into North Korea surreal rather the truly inspiring one #no).

view from the restaurant

We were here the vacation was underway.

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