Wild Wonderful Karnataka

Diversions - A bit funny.

          If you need to visualize my thoughts right now, think of it as a cross between a distant howl, a photon, and a dribble of dark floating whatevers. Tristate existence is quite mundane before you embark on a voyage to the unknown and my feelings were pretty much comparable to a bride who has given her approval to an arranged marriage without ever having seen a glimpse of her male partner!

          Pramod's linguistic skills and local looks (triangular lungi probably included) had been used already to arrange bookings for 10 people to board the MV Tipu Sultan sometime in October with me being the protagonist in collating the 70 grand required for the full meals, beedi benkipatna and sight seeing trip! The folks concerned in that 10 were influenced by my sweet talk that cabins were all booked and the only way to travel was by tourist class/chair class though I've to confess that I didn't really check out the availability lest it became a 'suitcase' trip. The dates planned initially, which coincided with my annual shutdown, too had to be altered owing to the holiday rush and the new dates were communicated to Pramod on his mobile without consulting the rest…or did I tell them? ;-) Thankfully Baaps did the honour of booking return train tickets from Cochin through his friendly travel agent. This saved me the trouble of counting flies at cantonment while waiting for my turn in the winding queues during office hours which would probably have invited a rebuke from my manager for lack of commitment!

          The onward journey to Cochin was booked on the 19th evening by the popular Shama transport's Volvo bus scheduled to start from Kalasipalyam. Innumerous reminders failed to get the entire junta into the bus by the scheduled time and part of the crowd, including me, had to race against time to board the bus at it's next loading point somewhere near Koramangala. If there exists an auto driver who, given a chance can easily give Karthikeyan a run for his money at the F3 level, it was our man who drove us to our destination well within time! He deserved that huge tip we conferred on him. Comfortably seated with thigh rests and all, we settled for the night hoping to have a good night's sleep. But the humane bus folks with intentions to prepare us for the rocking sea voyage had us awake for most of the night with sporadic snoring and raucous laughter.

          Morning ablutions and breakfast were skipped to enable us to reach in time for the scheduled departure at 10 a.m. sharp from Wellingdon Island, which was located at an hour's drive from mainland Cochin. Excluding a meal on any given day is quite an ordeal with Guru around and it required quite some flattery and deception from the rest of us to dissuade him from the millions of mallu stalls selling myriad delicacies. He did manage a cuppa tea though. To the Island, we chose to take the bus rather than cramp into a couple of hunchback autos that weren't cheap anyway. The bus-fare was a tenth of what the taxis and autos claimed!

           There was hardly a soul on the island at 10 a.m. and I had to scrutinize my ticket to check If I had the dates correct! A small office which had something to do with Lakshadweep (A bill board advertised this) located further away from the bus-stop was my only hope and I barged in along with Vinay while the rest went foraging for food. The sleepy inmate informed me that the ship leaves only around sunset and embarkation starts not earlier than noon! He directed me to the Lakshadweep tourism office though, which were equipped with basic toilets and clean washrooms surprisingly. Vinay and me made full use of those 'basic' facilities and were on our way to join the rest of the gang who had by then landed at the Taj Malabar for grub. Situated on the Willingdon Island, which has a magnificent view of the Cochin harbour and beautiful backwaters, the Taj Malabar is a fine blend of old- world charm and contemporary amenities. The good part was that the hotel staff was at their courteous best despite our back-packer looks. The breakfast spread was sumptuous and being a buffet, it was unlimited which suited our taste. I wudn't bet on them continuing the breakfast buffet after that day though! Vinay and me then escorted the crowd to the tourism office where we were supposed to register.

           By now there was a small mob jostling for space at the entrance. After the cursory check by the security at the reception, we were herded to the top floor, which housed the tourism office. The friendly guy there did recognize me as being from Bangalore and all and had a package waiting for me. I (as were the rest) was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the package contained T-shirts, caps and towels for all of us! Now, if you have lost your towel, don't panic! Reach out for the new, expanded and revised 'Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy' or take a trip to Lakshadweep! And just when we were languishing with the new gratis apparel assuming of course that we were the only fortunate folks, this whole new bunch of typical suit-casers (just like backpackers, you know!) with 'Rajdhani' T-shirts stretched across their liberal paunches strolled out of hired Ambys. They surely had this air of entertaining a delusionary feeling of superiority around them and it was hard to miss out the fact that this sojourn had been subsidized by some despondent Quasi-govt. institution desperate to account for enthusing the youth of India! Though we realized that they spoke the same dialect as ours, we chose to procrastinate the inevitable camaraderie.

          The lone vessel was anchored just behind the office with curious topless, lungi-clad onlookers ogling at its size and the slowly trickling crowd of tourists including ours faithfully. Eager as we were to download our heavy backpacks, we were wary of a long embarkation process since Lakshadweep islands are out of bounds without proper permits even for desis. On the contrary, there was nobody to even check if I had paid up for the trip and we hopped on almost unnoticed! Once inside, I discovered that the tourist class space was already brimming with a school of young biologists from Mumbai who were there to combine their academics with loads of fun. The Rajdhanis were holed up in twin-sharing cabins located a deck below our habitat. Lunch was served on board and the first meal was sort of sneak preview for the days to come. It was simply awesome and only improved further during the following days.

           And Late one December afternoon, the M.V. Tipu Sultan swayingly put out to sea from the Cochin Harbour. The Taj Malabar gradually receded before our eyes even as the small fishing boats raced back with their day's catch, the gulls soaring and darting noisily above them, laying claim to their share of the fishermen's labour. An occasional dolphin hopped out of the sea, shimmering in the sun, which was greeted by raucous juvenile screams even from the most purist adult on deck. The land soon became a distant horizon that would finally disappear behind the curving earth. Then there was only the ship; it's winding path and the sea. Not quite! The attempt of the blue-back waters of the Arabian Sea to hide it's denizens was ever so often frustrated as the rebellious flying fish or the dolphins broke out on their short, swift flights. True, they were swallowed again by the sea but they had made their point: We were not the only ones on those waters!

          The cruiser had 4 decks if I remember right with the bottom most part housing the noisy engine room and it's inmates. The passenger seats and the associated kitchen with stores etc were directly above it. With the antique Dutch engine straining to move the huge mass across the vast Arabian Sea you can imagine the high temperature and noise around those floors. The passenger seats were the cheapest way to travel and it was meant for the islanders to traverse between islands. The seats were just barren with too much space to sit and too little space to sleep! The tourists who opted for cabins along with the ship's crew were housed in more comfortable though cramped locations on the upper floors. The Rajdhani crowd were housed in these. The trippers who opted for lounging chairs like the mumbai crowd and us were housed on the floor just below the top deck towards the front part of the ship (whatever it's called in naval terms). The swaying is most felt towards the upper front of the ship and we realised that spending a night on the lounging chairs would be quite an ordeal. Our crowd had to settle for the unoccupied couches left behind by the mumbai marine biologists who were a trifle earlier than us. But it hardly mattered since the comfort level wasn't going to rise if we were offered a choice on couches, I guess! A small storage space towards the rear helped us to dump our backpacks.

          A change room equipped with mirrors and hangers on one side and a pair of small cramped toilets on the opposite side towards the exit completed the locale of our territory. An hour later, we were all on the top deck vying to have the best post at the railings. The salty evening wind smearing our facades combined with light swaying was quite a feeling. The Rajdhani crowd publicised their presence with their incessant prattle and we were sort of drawn towards them. I broke the ice to start a conversation and immediately repented. The crowd consisted of typical chauvinistic males who prided themselves in being adventurous in embarking on this voyage while their wives and children led a blasé existence at home. Of course the claimed adventurism never related to their physical stature though. The crowd was star studded too with a popular Kannada TV serial artist who mostly kept to himself. We never could get him to sign on our caps, which still remains a huge disappointment. The first person we spoke was an insurance agent by profession and as usual he was quite adept in explaining why everything in the world needs to be insured. A lecturer, some post graduate students and some state government employees formed the rest of their crowd. Guru's intuition about the long voyage being monotonous and unexciting after the first few moments led him to carry packs of playing cards and we decided that it was time we used them! A couple of games were all we could manage since the sea winds scattered the cards too often. Dinner was promptly served at 8 p.m; typical of the naval crew to stick to timeliness.

           The unlimited spread was sumptuous with separate sections for veggies and meat eaters and we hogged like there was no tomorrow. A stroll on the top deck after dinner completed the day and we prepared to rock and roll for the night. The deck was pretty comfortable with the warm salty winds, covered rooftop to keep off the rains and minimal sway compared to the cold stuffy aircon airstream coupled with the swinging chairs in the tourist lounge. A whole lot of others including the Rajdhani crowd felt so too and the deck was pretty crowded with folks jostling for sleeping space. But we with our sleeping bags could just sleep anywhere and weren't hindered by the mundane problems of the rest! Ajitha and Guru though preferred the tourist lounges for the night for reasons unknown while the rest of us cosily settled for the night on the deck. The moon visible through a hole in the roof only to me acted as a lullaby and I dozed off almost immediately only to be rudely awakened by the persistent chatter of the early birds and the monotonous drone of the Dutch engine to a smaller extent. The excitement of sighting land had contributed to the chatter. Close to 18 hours of sailing and land was finally in sight! Not to miss out on the excitement, we rushed about to finish our ablutions and queued up for breakfast, which again was beyond expectations. The islands are all quite tiny the entire piece of land was visible though we weren't too far from it. Since the huge ship can't anchor on the shallow shores, thus enabling us to directly disembark, it docked a couple of miles away where smaller boats were already waiting to ferry us across to the islands. Reaching the exit located near the passenger seats at the bottom deck was quite an ordeal since we weren't familiar with the ship's geography. The transit between the ship and the smaller boats was another nightmare as it involved synchronising the sway of the ship and the boat and jump off when they met. Able-bodied islanders were of course helping on either side of the exit, which thankfully prevented any casualties. We were transported in batches and about an hour later, all of us had regrouped on the shores of Kalpeni. There weren't any half-naked girls serving Malibu waiting to garland us as I was led to believe earlier and it was a quiet welcome from the local officials.

          A contraption which looked more like a sand buggy and less of a tractor though the driver preferred to call it the latter was used to ferry us to the unknown rendezvous on the island. Kalpeni has three inhabited satellite islands surrounded by a wondrous lagoon. Visitors are hosted at the Koomel Bay, which overlooks two of these islands. The third is at the northern end. The bay is sort of cut off from the local habitat to prevent invasion of their privacy and a typical holidaymaker haunt has been developed here. Tender coconut water was the welcome drink, which was relished after the parching journey. A string of fresh water bathrooms, a toilet, a kitchen and a local administrator's office has been built here in a semi-circle overlooking the lagoon. We chose to wade around in the shallow waters to get a feel of things to come. Swimming and snorkelling were the activities scheduled for the day at Kalpeni. The young biologists from Mumbai were already neck-deep in water fooling around with each other. A small island visible about half a mile away supposedly had a better place for snorkelling and we were transported in batches by motor boats. Wading through the lagoon waters one found the seabed littered with sea cucumbers of various shapes and colours, but mainly black. I was fascinated when one of them moved when I inadvertently stepped on it. I never realised that the ugly black things on the seabed were living marine animals!! The life jackets and snorkels arrived a few moments later and we embarked on our snorkelling experience. The seabed certainly isn't a bed of roses to walk on and I was more than relieved to own my pair of teva sandals! I was even more amazed when their velcro snappers stuck on in the salty sea water!! It was to be my first snorkelling experience and I wasn't too impressed by the thought of sticking a tube out to breathe while you scoured the seabed from the surface! Jaisimha, Vinay and me clustered to forage the seabed together and I had my first mouthful of salty water as soon as we started. Chiman with his buoyant physique cudn't have had this experience even if he tried to drown himself!

          The view was simply breath taking below. The seabed that looked plain from the surface was incredibly boisterous when scrutinised closely and I realised that the snorkel was in fact quite a handy tool underwater! Colonies of colourful fishes and corals added verve to the whole set-up and perhaps the population density on the seabed was far greater than in any of the major metros. I was startled beyond my wits when I glimpsed a huge bubbly mass floating behind me only to realise it was Chiman who resembled a colossal fish thru the snorkel! The young marine biologists were mostly freelancing the depths of the lagoon though the studious among them were intently listening to their professor who was demonstrating how a particular family of shrimps interacted with another family of fishes. It was interesting to note that the professor was handling a fairly large audience without disturbing the object of study. A couple of hours later, the whole group was herded back to shore by the same motor boats to savour lunch at the seashore. Fresh water baths with transluscent curtains separating each tap were provided at the shore for which the crowd had faithfully queued up. The alleged 'fresh' water reeked of rotten eggs and felt oily to the touch. Nevertheless, it provided welcome relief from the painful fine sand grains embedded in those nether crevices within me. Lunch was served under the frugal shade of the coconut trees and soon after the local youth provided an adept rendition of a popular island dance. The beach was filled with exotic creatures like the brittle star, star fish etc which were blended so brilliantly with the environment that it needed the trained eye of the biologists to locate them under the slanting rays of the afternoon sun! A huge conch shell with it's fleshy inmate intact was obscenely lying face-up which reminded me of the main character in Tom Robbin's Skinny legs and all. Later, Cantry, baps, chethi and me took a walk along the coastline to visualise the actual living conditions of the local population. It wasn't hard to figure out that the populace thrived on coconut trees and the marine life primarily. A defunct 'museum' as the locals described but more of a garment factory was showcased to us tourists later and the souvenir crazy amongst the crowd did buy some T-shirts and local handicrafts made of coconut coir. The sand buggies had already begun hauling the tourists back to the shores where our ship awaited. Baps, equipped with his immense prattling skills, influenced the chief cook to part with free tender coconuts to all of us just before we departed. The local mob was expectantly waiting for their only means of island hopping already at the shores. We merged with them and were grouped into smaller boats, which would ferry us across to the ship's hull. For the second time the same day, our dexterity was put to test while embarking the ship; our behaviour was close to being ostentatious in front of other suitcasers while performing this act!!

          Back on the ship, we looked forward to dinner since the day's activities had us sapped. The cool evening breeze on the deck invited us to kill the 2 hours before dinner. Guru rolled out his pack of cards and we sat down to try our hands at rummy again. The small stall on the deck sold delicious roasted peanuts, potato crispies etc and BaapaNNi surprisingly bought us all a couple of packs! Eclipses, dolphin sightings, flying fishes etc are considered common events when compared to BaapaNNi spending goes an old sanjaynagar proverb. The scattering cards owing to the steady breeze got us irritated to the point that we stopped the game midway and opted to join the winding queue for dinner. The choice of meal( veg/non-veg) had to be determined by the length of the queue in each department. The simple yet sumptuous meal on the tilted tables owing to the waves was satiating albeit second helpings for watermelons were refused. We scrambled back to the deck since space up there was at a premium; sleeping with the cool night breeze blowing was akin to sleeping in a centrally air-conditioned room and was definitely preferred to spending the night while being cramped on the reclining chairs in the tourist lounge. Cantry, suresh, chetana, vandana and me were the privileged lot with sleeping bags while Vinay had bedspreads and pillows. BaapaNNi managed to cajole Cantry into sharing his bag while Guru and Ajitha chose to sleep yet again in the tourist lounge along with most of the marine biologists. Suresh's novels were quite a hit with the girls that night! The deck lights, which acted as beacon lights, weren't supposed to be switched off and this was the only irritant to my undisturbed slumber. Boisterous baapaNNi's raucous laughter coupled with the usual chatter of the early worm-eaters awakened me and the rest just after sunrise, the next morning. The myriad morning hues of the sky was simply breath taking especially when that happened to be the first sight when I woke up! The small bathrooms got filthier by the day and each time the ship tilted in the direction where the outlet was located, frothy phlegm like stuff sprouted out filling the whole floor. A couple of wash basins were clogged too with similar stuff and I wonder if I came out cleaner than what I was when I entered! The toilets with western commodes were pretty much the same with the seat filthier than the floor! Describing how I used the loo without getting myself drenched in shit is beyond the scope of this travelogue. I resolved to be the first to use the loo the next morning.

          Farthest from Kavaratti island, 200 km away to the south and also nearest to the Maldives, Minicoy was the next destination in our itinerary. The usual small boats driven by half naked local fishermen were waiting at the gaping hole where we were supposed to disembark from his majesty, the Tipu sultan. Unlike at Kavaratti, the ship anchored miles off the island owing to the extensive lagoon. The crystal clear seabed was a sight to watch from the smaller boats with all sorts of fishes darting hither and thither for reasons unknown. As Calvin says "there's a profound reason for every action; it's just hard to figure out what"! Minicoy was bizarrely silent with hardly any signs of habitation except for the few officials to welcome us. Tender coconut water was again the welcome drink served next to the seaside shaded by coconut trees. The POA for the day was prominently displayed on a black board, which included canoeing, rafting, folk dances etc.

           Decrepit tempo travellers arrived an hour later which were to transport us to an unknown destination where the beaches were supposedly cleaner though I could find no fault with the beach we were currently in. A lighthouse built by the British in 1885 is the only listed attraction according to lonely planet and sadly this was under renovation and thus forbidden for visitors. We bundled in the last of the tempo travellers with BaapaNNi and me sharing the front seat along with the driver. The first sharp turn made me realise that the door cudn't be locked and it required all my strength to keep off from plummeting onto the tarmac. Was I glad to get off a few minutes later! The destination was a sort of resort with canoes, pedal boats, life jackets etc all lined up. We managed to snatch a two-seater rowboat and consensed to time-share it among ourselves. Cantry and BaapaNNi ventured out the first time while the rest of us (speaking for myself) commented on the tummy expanses of the other tourists. The untouched shores were filled with all sorts of arthropods and molluscans who all seemed to be in an extreme hurry for reasons unknown again! Clad in tight shorts, a life jacket and nothing else, I felt like a dimwit waiting for spontaneous combustion under the scorching sun. We took a walk along the shoreline out of boredom and were pleasantly surprised to find even more life among the rocks close to the water. The strange creatures with whiskers twice as long as their torsos who chose to carry their homes on their backs (lest it gets illegally occupied?!) provided me with enough solace that I had a fight on hand for the brightest dimwit on the island! Chetana and me got to use the kayak and we ventured out farther into the lagoon. The marine biologists equipped with personal snorkels had probably discovered a particular kind of fish, which had them all excited and we rowed in that direction to be part of the celebrations.

           A few round trips later, the kayak was beached out of boredom and I preferred to further explore the beach by walk. Cowry shells are a fascination and I never believed they could just be picked on a beach. My first sight of a brightly coloured shell had me jumping with glee and I strode on to find some more in the hope that I could collect a foursome! Chetana joined me in the search and within the next hour we had gathered nine shells which included one huge white cowry (which is now proudly displayed in my living room). With our bounty of exotic shells, Chetana and me strolled back to the comfort of the huts. The bathrooms were all crammed with guys even twin-sharing a few of them. It was touching to see one of the professors stand guard while his wife bathed in the guys section owing to lack of space in the women's bathrooms! An hour later, I finally found a room for myself and the cold water was surely refreshing after the suicidal walk in the hot sun. While making small talk with the professors later, we learnt that they could speak the same lingo as ours since we belonged to the same state though they had migrated to Mumbai in search of greener pastures decades ago. It was hard to miss the camaraderie between the professors and their students despite the subtle respect the professors commanded, which was indeed soothing. The tempos came hurtling back while we were engrossed in a game of volleyball and the drive back went without incident.

           Lunch was next on the agenda, which was more than welcome after all the day's action. The spread again was simple yet tasty. Minicoy is small enough to jog the entire circumference though words cannot do justice to the incredible size of the lagoon, one of the largest in Lakshadweep! It has a culture very different from any other island - dress, language, food, all differ. A cluster of 11 villages, called Athiris form Minicoy and each village is presided over by a Moopan (or something sounding similar). A walk through the winding lanes of the villages gives an indication of the culture here. Sometime during the year, the villages compete against each other or against neighbouring islands in boat races and we were shown some really colourful race boats called "JaladhoNi" which formed the backdrop for a group photograph. A whole basket of live tuna fish was being pruned by discarding the entrails to fit into cans at a local home and Chetana saw an opportunity here to add one to her portfolio by posing with a live tuna in one hand and the other hand in the akimbo position! The whole place stank of putrid flesh, which forced us to move on to the next attraction that this island had to offer only to realise there were no more!

           Minicoy is also renowned for its dance tradition: the lava dance is performed on either festive occasions or when tourists are around. Locals dressed in headgear made of leaves and equipped with drums danced to the beat of their own instruments which was appreciated by us over a cup of coffee and good day biscuits. A refreshing hour later, it was time to step out of Minicoy and resume our sojourn on to the administrative capital of the islands, Kavaratti. The small, motorised boats with the expert helmsmen were neatly lined up to transport us back to Her majesty, the Tipu sultan that could now be seen on the horizon. The journey back to the ship was quite eventful. The conversationalist in me prompted to start-up a dialogue with the helmsman who surprisingly had voyaged around the world as a certified seaman. I later learnt that Minicoy supplied a whole lot of seamen to the world! Portugal, Cape of Good Hope, the middle east and other exotic places were part of his itinerary and he was now enjoying a long vacation with his family at Minicoy.

           We discussed about the shipping firms' mode of working; the free permits for seamen which entitles them to set foot on every place they dock; the harassment meted out by customs officials when the seamen come back home to join their family and a lot more during the journey. He even obliged to take his boat to a vantagepoint so that I could get a fantastic photograph of the huge ship, Tipu Sultan. This happens to be the one of the better snaps from that trip! The waves had increased in intensity and it was quite an ordeal to get the small boats in line with the opening on the ship's hold. Owing to this, the ship and our small boats had to literally move in search of calmer waters. A school of dolphins probably heading back home with the sun set in the backdrop formed an incredible sight and had us all merrily clapping. The winds subsided which aided the transfer of all of us into the ship's hold almost an hour later. The waves hadn't subsided as yet and the hop onto the ship had to be precisely timed while riding on a crest. I was the last to get off 'cos my oarsman and me still had plenty to prattle. We finally bade good byes promising to meet up somewhere sometime! Thankfully the bathrooms were empty and indeed a lot cleaner than my previous visit!

           It was grub time by the time I scrubbed myself and dinner was accomplished without much ado albeit the fight for watermelons had to happen. Cards were passe tonight since my newly acquired cowry shells held centre-stage. Chauka-bhara is a traditional game of dice played by either 2 or 4 players on a small chequered board with arms extending into all 4 directions. Distinguishable articles are to be chosen as pawns by each player and my friend from the Rajdhani crowd provided these in the form of dry fruits! Truly royal, eh?! The deal was that the winner gets to eat the handful of pawns after the game. We improvised a bit to accommodate 6 players since not many were willing to be sidelined. The game board was drawn on the deck floor with a piece of chalk borrowed from an enthusiastic child and we were ready to begin. BaapaNNi was the first to roll the dice if I remember right. Half an hour into the game and we had attracted quite a few spectators how had probably come to investigate the high decibel levels emanating from our corner! Part of the Rajdhani crowd gathered around too and the surrounding was almost festive with sides being chosen amongst the spectators. Guru handled the dice like a pro and took the initial lead though the rest of us quickly snatched it away. This game requires the dice to total up huge numbers to progress towards the pedestal and dextrous rolling of the dice is quite handy. Luck wasn't on my side and I totalled only couplets, which had my pawns limping along while the rest ran past. There was healthy competition amongst us that had us involved in the game for more than a couple of hours that night. The pawns were worn out and quite dirty by the time we finished and none volunteered to eat them after the game. Aware that the activities for the next day started early, we chose to hit the sack just before midnight. The usual haggle for sleeping bags, novels, pillows, bed-sheets etc continued for some more time though.

           It was cold that night even wrapped inside my mummy contoured sleeping bag capable of handling temperatures up to 4ºC. The sunrise was a pleasant sight the next morning. The Kavaratti shoreline was visible at the horizon and people could be seen scurrying across to pack up for the day. Small boats as usual were waiting to ferry us across to the shore. The last hope of half-clad women lined up to welcome us with shots of Malibu dwindled as we accustomed ourselves to the tender coconuts served by the local youth who were, I should confess half-clad! The rendezvous was on the beach, which had some cute cottages further down. A strange sight was the obtusely curved coconut tree that could be walked up rather than climbed! Breakfast was served while we ogled at the beauty of the islands yet again though the beach scene is never complete without sunbathing women.

           The day's activities were pasted on a couple of boards around which included canoeing, boat rides, Scuba diving for a fee and a lot more. The tourism department guys had put up a small souvenir stall selling calendars, posters etc and the crowd around that was comparable to what Veena stores attracts on a Saturday morning! The islands have no shops selling souvenirs and this resulted in the huge rush. We managed to buy ourselves a copy of the calendars each though I'm yet to collect mine from BaapaNNi. The beach houses, the palm trees coupled with our colourful clothes provided an ambience to do something feral for the next couple of hours before we embarked for the scheduled activities. Sitting idle for so long would be as exciting as watching wet clothes dry! A bright spark announced that the sands make a perfect playground for Kabaddi, which was well received by all of us. Now, I do believe that the humble and wholly Indian game of kabaddi should be declared the national game, because it is the closest metaphor for the way we behave. Consider: you do a lot of meaningless running-around, you hold your breath and hope nothing bad happens, you mutter senseless gibberish constantly which all amounts to masterly inactivity. But the game per se was good fun despite BaapaNNNi's mastery over it. The couple of games that we indulged in had all my orifices filled with fine sand which wasn't by any means comfortable! A few hundred feet further down the beach, the Scuba dives were to be performed.

          Scuba diving was something we had never tried and were all too eager to delve further. The costs were 400/- for a 15-minute dive, which was a steal compared to the scuba diving packages offered elsewhere. Normally folks who venture into scuba diving for the first time have to be content diving in a swimming pool and here we were ready to forage the depths of the Arabian Sea though it was our first dive! We were given an hour of classroom training by our instructor which was absolutely necessary since diving is considered a dangerous sport and things can go horribly wrong under water. The instructor could host a maximum of 20 scuba divers while the rest had to be on a waiting list. Fortunately we were among the first to get enrolled since most of them were apprehensive about spending 15 minutes under 10 foot of water! Equipment acquaintance and conversation through hand signalling under water were the main topics discussed at the training. Suresh was already an accomplished diver and he chose to take a professional dive unlike us. I imagined that tight full-body suits would be provided and later realised that those suits are meant only for the colder climates. A 20-pound air-filled cylinder strapped on your back with tubes sticking out everywhere and Austin powers type glasses to top the attire probably made us look odd! An old discarded cargo container on the beach provided shade while we waited for our turn to dive.

           The snorkelling experience had taught us all to breathe through the mouth and we were quite comfortable with the scuba apparatus. The dive lasted for 15 minutes technically though it felt much shorter. The scene underwater was fabulous with multi-coloured fishes, corals etc and a sunken ship at the bottom gave me a feeling of greater depths than the actual 10 to 15 feet. Within the next couple of hours, we had all taken our plunges and were busy exchanging notes on the scenery below water. While the chosen few dived, the rest of the crowd enjoyed themselves with the numerous kayaks, paddle boats, rowboats etc. The sea was good enough to just swim which the marine biologists were indulging in! The forenoon heat had forced the elderly folks into the shaded beach huts while we frolicked showing scant respect to the sun.

           Baapanni and me had a fast ride on the twin kayak and the clear colourful ocean floor was a fabulous sight. Suresh had to be driven in a motor boat for about a kilometre for his professional dive, and we intended to paddle to the location on our kayak. His dive would be for about half an hour reaching depths of 30 Mts.! But the gentlest of waves can tilt the kayak and the rough seas drove us back to shore. The glass-bottomed boat was the next attraction and a special trip was arranged just for us since the rest had finished their trip by then. The boat looked pretty ordinary and we expected the routine murky view with a guide prattling about what lies beneath. But once the doors covering the glass bottom were opened, we were dumbfounded by the sheer clarity of the ocean floor. The guide/oarsman who hardly spoke any language we knew still managed to convey that the ocean floor is about 20 to 25 metres in depth. If I believed that I had seen it all by snorkelling or scuba diving, I was wrong since this was much much better. A shoal of bright yellow coloured fish with black stripes went below us first to be replaced by another shoal of purple tinted fish! The next few minutes were just like watching a kaleidoscope! The oarsman had brought along breadcrumbs to feed and the fish promptly jumped out of water to grab the pieces in mid-air! A huge brown lump of what looked like a mound of dirt from top slowly started moving and we realised that it was a sea turtle. Moments later, we spotted his companion too moving about with the same lazy pace oblivious of us tourists above them. The boat ride lasted for about an hour though the stipulated time was much lesser. Thankfully the bathrooms were empty by the time we reached the shore since the marine biologists and the rest of the tourists had already left. The bathrooms were small but clean though water flowed in trickles owing to the truckloads of sand deposited by the earlier users!

           Tempos were waiting to transport us back mercifully thus avoiding us scalding ourselves under the harsh sun. For greater contemplation of sea life, there is a small aquarium in Kavaratti, which was our next destination. The young marine biologists were fervent enough to share their knowledge about the strange creatures exhibited. A couple of ugly rocks were displayed in a particular enclosure, which somehow excited the biologists! Only when the 'rocks' started moving, did I realise that they were living creatures! Turtles, snake fishes, shrimps, lobsters etc were other exhibits in addition to a whole gallery of fossils, corals, skeletons etc in an adjoining room. A small pond between these rooms was filled with different kinds of eels and turtles. It was a pleasure to feel the eels when they swam close to our hands. Another enclosure housed a family of sharks who seemed to be aimlessly moving around. Photography and videography were strictly prohibited within the aquarium and Guru with his expensive handycam was frustrated which got noticed by the curator himself! He made arrangements to feed the sharks after granting permission for Guru to film them. The sharks in motion attacking the falling pieces of meat is a movie clip worth watching. The aquarium was the last attraction at Kavaratti. The tempo driver did take us for a small jaunt around the island later before we were transported back to the waiting boats. A bottle of Pepsi to quench my thirst from a local vendor was my last tryst with shopping at the capital of the Lakshadweep islands. When we got on board the Tipu sultan, I could sense a mixed feeling of melancholy combined with euphoria among the crowd.

           For the last time that evening we clustered on the deck to feel the damp salty breeze on our skin while the marine biologists were busy rehearsing for something to be disclosed later in the night. The Last Supper was in no way gloomy but rather sumptuous which suited all of us after the day's exploits. The promised performance by the students turned out to be a damp squib except for the solo guitar rendering by one of them who seemed to have an apache connection. The rajdhani crowd indulged in one final round of gambling while we just gossiped at the railings. Daybreak was announced by the happy squeals of folks sighting land at the horizon. In our desperate longing to transcend the disorderliness that pestered our cabins, the backpacks were loaded with articles strewn around the cabin before we set off towards the bathrooms. Though land was sighted at daybreak itself, it was towards noon that the ship finally docked at the Cochin harbour; just in time for us to catch the train back to Bangalore which was scheduled at 14:30 hrs. We rushed out to hire taxis after exchanging hurried good byes with the students and the rajdhani crowd. The train was a good hour late, which enabled to us to visit all stations within Cochin before finding the right place where the train would indeed stop for us! Reservations on the island express were confirmed though the berths weren't entirely clustered. The journey back to Bangalore was thus comfortable and free of incidents to write about.

          The Lakshadweep islands represent nature at its pristine best. The chief animals, the corals, belong to a period soon after the beginning of life in the seas. Many of the islands are not even inhabited by man and they remain practically untouched by his industrial advancement. Those who dwell there still retain their tribal customs and cultures. But the mainland always beckons to them. The younger folk get scholarships to the universities of Cochin, Calicut and elsewhere and it is very likely that they will leave behind their heaven and seek opportunities in the wider world. To us mainlanders, the islands are an enchanting, once in a lifetime, experience. But perhaps the younger islanders think, in the words of Sir Richard Burton, "Little islands are all large prisons: One cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of a swallow."!

The crowd: Vandana, Vinayachandra Aithala, Suresh , Srikanth(Cantry), Chetana, Sundeep, Jaisimha (chiman), Raghavendra (BaapaNNi), Gururaja, Ajitha.

December 19th to December 24th 2002.

To organize a trip for yourselves, please contact:

Asst. General Manager (Sports), Lakshadweep Office,
Indira Gandhi Road, Willingdon Island,
Cochin - 682003
Tel : 0484 - 668387 Fax : 668155

Liaison Officer, Lakshadweep Administration,
F-306, Kasturba Gandhi Marg Hostel,
New Delhi - 110001
Tel : 011-3386807 Fax : 3782246

Some useful links: