Thursday, March 18, 2010

A week of Sunday mornings


Getting to Havelock Island is hard work. But perhaps there is something to say for the length of the journey. With every stage of the travel, you move a step away from the rapidity of life in Mumbai, and a step closer to the mildness of life in the islands.
Which is not to say that there is no adventure to be had; or that the life on the islands is idyllic. Far from it. Havelock is the centre of all scuba diving activities in the Andaman & Nicobar islands. It is also a place where the coming of tourism has created an uneasy tension for the local population.

Three-way street
It takes two flights and a ferry, and costs approximately Rs 10,000 to reach Havelock. It is a small island with a triumvirate of roads that meet at a tiny little roundabout at the Market. One runs down from the jetty; one will take you to Radhanagar beach, the island’s most popular seaside spot; and the third that comes from Kalapathar is lined with resorts both cheap and expensive, offering log huts with varying degrees of comfort.
The ferry to Port Blair is the lifeline of the island, and its only link with the other islands littered around it in the Andaman Sea. There is a helicopter service, but its schedule is more unpredictable than the moods of the sea.
Which are many. The thing about being on a small island is that you can get from the windward side to the leeward in a matter of minutes. At one end, the water is calmer than any swimming pool in Bombay. A warm, shallow blue-green, just meant for paddling and splashing about, perfect for a morning swim when you’re not still quite awake.
As you travel along the island’s coast, the colours change with alacrity, turning into a deep blue as you get close to Radhanagar. The water there is edged in white; the surf of strong waves that will pick you up and toss you closer to shore. A swim there is like an ayurvedic massage, pillow fight and kickboxing session rolled into one. You always emerge battle-weary, yet somehow refreshed and happy.


Meandering about town
The jetty and the Vijaynagar crossroad where the triumvirate roads of Havelock meet, are the two centres of activity in Havelock. The beaches and villages on the island are numbered, though in a manner of numbering that is conclusively Indian. Beach number 7 follows Village number 2 and 4 in tempestuous confusion. Most of the residents of the islands are Bangladeshi refugees brought there by the Indian government. Turns out that the villages were numbered in the order in which they were settled, which is why Beach 5 is on a different road from Village 4. They acquired names much later.
Along the beaches, all the land has been sold to resort companies, some of the more recent sales made at preposterous prices. But if you rent a motorcycle and go around riding the smaller offshoots of the main roads, you’ll find that away from the tourism and the beaches, farming still continues in the interior of the island.
Aimless riding around and exploring is one of the main activities on the island. With two litres of petrol in the tank, you have enough fuel to travel the length and the breadth of the island several times over. Many a day is well spent looking for the next likeliest spot for a swim; what other decision is of greater importance?
Just rent a set of snorkels as well. The water around the Andamans is rich and full of life. From nearly every beach and swimming spot there is an easily accessible bit of reef where you can easily spot shy clownfish peeping among the anemones. You can also rent a boat to go snorkelling at a further away spot. It’s something you can try even if you can’t swim because most boatmen give you a floating device and throw you a line; secured to those you can merrily bob around, looking into the water. Just remember to put loads of sunscreen on the back of your legs.


A more energetic holiday
If you’re looking for something a bit more energetic, sign up for a scuba diving course.
There are two kinds of holidays that can be had on Havelock. One is the restful ‘do nothing’ sort I’ve described so far, where you spend you time swimming, chasing the perfect spot of shade on the beach and snoozing in it, and sipping coconut water as you read your book and wait for the sunset.
This is not the holiday you will have if you sign up for scuba diving, but you will not regret it. For the first day-and-a-half of the course, you will feel like you’re back in school, learning the theory of the equipment that helps you survive underwater, and then performing exercises with it that help you deal with possible emergencies. The hard work done, you’ll spend the other two days with your eyes wide open for the most time, as you navigate a completely different world, with its own set of rules and full of so many hundreds of beautiful things. At no point during these four days will you have time for anything other than scuba diving, big meals, and very sound sleep.
Havelock is a small place that even during peak season may seem rather empty and bare to you. But often, during this time, the resorts take turns organising little parties every night, to which all are welcome. There will be music, sometimes even a live band and dancing. In the distance, there will be the moon presiding over a dark sea.
It was at one such party that I spoke to some of the resort and dive shop owners who have made Havelock their home. Tourism and their presence has brought good things to the island; but also wrought changes that no one fully understands. There is more money, but no land, few jobs, and exposure to a way of life that is unfamiliar. But the people and the place still retain the original charm and innocence. It is a place where tourism has come slowly and without the big restaurants, shacks, casinos and discotheques that are the mark of a busy seaside holiday spot. Neither is it a place that has room for these. Don’t go there looking for a cleaner Goa; that is one kind of holiday you will not find in Havelock.


A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times in January.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


There's seawater rushing up my nose, suddenly harsh and corrosive. My brain starts sending me danger alerts, reminding me that I have a nose, not gills, and I cannot breathe underwater. With the mask off, my eyes burn and I want to sputter and snort.
Instead I pretend like all is cool. Like I’m the cat’s whiskers and all that stinging water doesn’t bother me one bit. I swab a palm across my forehead as though wiping off sweat on a balmy summer afternoon, and look around at my teammates giving them the thumbs up.

All this time my brain been telling me I’m mad. It’s shrieking that I’m completely, utterly off my rockers; that I’m not supposed to be immersed underwater in the ocean and certainly not without my mask. Another part of my brain, the more logical one, is telling it to shut up. The regulator bringing oxygen to my mouth from the tank strapped to my back is still firmly in place, it says. ‘Stop being a chick’ it adds, sounding dangerously like an annoying colleague.

I slowly put the mask back on, tilt my head back and snort to clear it of water, and look to my instructor to see how I’ve done. She gives me the thumbs up and I can see she’s smiling. As she turns to the others, I give a smug nod to the jellyfish that’s been hanging around my shoulder. Minutes before, it’d been mocking me saying I had no business being here. I showed it, didn’t I?

To swim or to sink

When you’re learning to dive, the turning point between wondering whether you’ll be able to and knowing you will is the first time you take off the mask and let the salt water use your nose and eyes like a playground. This is when most people go gasping up to the surface, losing track of where they are and the equipment their life depends on. It's the part I was most skeptical about too. But get past this, and the rest just steps of a learning process. And getting past is easy if you can keep the urge to press the panic button under control, even every cell in your body is screaming in retaliation.

You'll discover, that the more annoying part is the way the compressed air from the tank dries up your mouth. Getting thirsty 12 m below the surface, surrounded by a crush of salt water and not quite able to swallow thanks to the big regulator stuck into your mouth, is more than a wee bit inconvenient.

It's a lifestyle

Staying at the Andaman Bubbles dive resort for the four days of the course, diving seemed more like a way of life than a sport. We woke early to get out while the tide was high and the sun still climbing the sky. By the time I came back in the evening I was too tired for anything more than a big meal and a night of sound sleep. Drinking and smoking are no-nos and everybody is fit and tanned, or on their way to getting there. The conversation revolves around the day’s dive, the conditions, the merits of the location, and the creatures spotted.

But before you're let into the water, there's the theory. Facts and figures about the underwater world and the principles behind the equipment that will allow you to navigate it. For the first time in the many years since college, I found myself studying along with breakfast so that I would be prepared for the day’s quiz.

For a holiday, it was quite hectic. I didn’t do the whole chilling by the beach, going for a swim then lying on a sarong and reading thing, and fell asleep two songs into the cool resort party I was invited to, live music be damned. But all worthwhile sacrifices for what I got in exchange.

Getting down and dirty

Once you get past the theory and get intimate with the equipment, you're finally allowed into the water. In the beginning, I felt graceless and bulky. I would either sink to the bottom, head down by the numerous weights tucked in my belt, or bob around on the surface, made buoyant by the air-filled jacket I was wearing. The mocking jellyfish was back, smirking translucently at me again.

The trick lay in figuring out that even the minutest change in the amount of air inside you can make a significant difference at a depth. When you're 12m below the surface at neutral buoyancy, (positive buoyancy makes you float, negative makes you sink, and when it’s neutral you’re a bit in water like an astronaut in zero gravity) swimming over a big boulder in your path is a simple matter of breathing deeply to rise up above it, and then exhaling to float close on top of the coral bed again.

All I remember after that is a vignette of moments that I will never forget. Like suddenly finding myself in the middle of a school of bright blue and yellow fish on my second dive, hundreds of them all around, above me, below me, beside me. Or shivering together in a huddle as the sunny sky slowly turned grey after our dive, and the boat crawled across an ocean that heaved and shook in rain that fell like heavy sheets. Till the clouds, suddenly exhausted, withdrew to let the sun back out, and two perfectly symetric rainbows made the day bright again. And then the most spectacular moment of them all – the ocean at night -- a completely transformed landscape full of bobbing, sleeping fish, and giant crabs skittering across the ocean floor. Holding the torch close to my chest to make the darkness total and then waving my hands in front of me so that the water came alive in a hundred thousand pin points of lights that swirled all around me (plankton baby, the fireflies of the sea).

But don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself.

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on Spetember 19.

Photos courtesy Andrea Blasco

on the waves

On a small boat in the middle of the sea, tossing about on the waves, salt dries on lips and the sun chars skin. There are no comforts here, but there’s a reverence for the wind that fills the sails and carries us homewards. Our little vessel is part of a grand old tradition, when men met the elements directly, without walls and cocoons to shield them. Their blood and sweat seeped into wooden hulls, becoming part of the lore of the vessels and the seas they sailed.

Despite being a product of the age of airplanes and cars, I felt the sea beckon and decided to make the most of my one chance at becoming a part of sailing lore. And so, even before I stepped on board the Mhadei, I vowed I'd prove to be a good sailor. No medicines to prevent sea-sickness for me, and treat me like part of the crew, I told the captain. He, a veteran of salt spray and changeful winds, accepted the extra pair of hands, though novice, willingly.

At the start of a journey

The monsoon was petering off, but it drizzled on the morning we were to start our 250 nautical mile journey from Goa to Mumbai. The day started early, with loading fresh supplies and luggage on board. As we cast off, Captain kept me busy, hauling in fenders and cajoling open stubborn sailors' knots. Then it was off to hoist our sail, assisting the first mate, himself a bit of a novice. We huffed and puffed, pushed and pulled with our might; Captain shouting out his encouragement, telling us to put our hearts into it.

By the time the sail was up, the shore was an indistinct haze, and the 56-feet-yacht was bouncing up and down in the metre-and-a-half swell. Caught up in my chores I'd had neither the time to notice the shore fade away nor the opportunity to feel sick. The wind filled the sails, tilting the boat 30-degrees, and our little vessel shot along, up the Western coast. The inevitable bout of seasickness struck and I upchucked my breakfast off the side of the boat; careful to make sure I did it downwind. Many a sailor has thrown up on the wrong side, only to have the wind hurl his stomach’s content right back at him.

Being sick is the easy part

Throwing up isn’t as bad as it sounds. You feel nauseated, you puke, and then you feel better. The key is to keep drinking water and eating, so that you keep up your energy. Take along plenty of fruits on your first long sailing trip; they’re really the only things you’ll feel like eating. Avoid going below deck; the fresh air and the sight of the horizon helps you feel much better. In fact, once I realised this, I took it to an extreme – refusing to move even to get my sunscreen. Consequently I burnt crisp, and let me tell you, that isn’t pretty. Don’t take the sun lightly: the combination of the boat’s pitching movement and the sun overhead has the effect of sapping your will. It also lulls you to sleep, just staying awake takes a lot of energy but it’s worth the effort.

No land in sight

Forty hours on a small boat sounds like a long time. But being in the middle of the sea is an amazing thing: by plucking you out of the context of land that always describes you, it also takes you out of time. It is easy to spend hour after hour just gazing at the waves with not a thought cluttering your head. At night too, I chose to sleep above deck, where I could see the sky overhead, and hear the waves lap the side of the boat.
The sky was an ever-changing canvas. Every time I opened my eyes, it reflected a different mood – mischievously dark, romantically moonlit, and even downright sombre and menacing.

Like a good sailor, I took on a night watch, and it was hard work, I’ll have you know. Though the monsoon is yet not officially over, fishing trawlers were out in full force. The boats themselves are easy to spot -- with their red, green and yellow lights -- but they travel in clusters, and it’s the nets strung between them, marked by tiny buoys, that you have to keep your eyes peeled out for. You don’t want to go over a net and risk having it entangled in your propeller or rudder.

Watch the wind

Morning dawned and the clouds hiding the sun were a godsend. Without the sun sapping all our energy, we felt like singing, taking photographs, and even considered cooked food. The sea was calmer and the wind steady, speeding us on our way. But out on the sea things can change very fast. As we sailed under a dark cloud, the temperature dropped suddenly and a powerful gust of wind slammed into our sail, angrily knocking it about. The boat tilted further, nearly 40 degrees to the right, and Captain rushed to the sail, reefing it in quickly. The boom swung in the wind, making the sail snap out a groan each time, and we sat anxious and quiet as Captain steered us to safer waters. The swell rose, and nearby trawlers seemed to disappear underwater each time a large wave came by. Then just as suddenly, the wind eased off and our boat righted herself.

Fairs winds were ours again and we sped homewards, dreaming of warm showers and hot meals. The wind seemed to caress us, and the water sparkled in the light of the gentler evening sun.

But never take the wind for granted, I learnt. As the shore of Mumbai came into sight and we saw the lighthouse marking the city’s southern-most point, the wind suddenly dropped completely. With home so close, the wind’s betrayal was a stiff blow to the heart. Amused by our downcast faces, Captain asked: “So sailors, you want to wait it out, or shall I turn on the engine?”
What do you think we chose?

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times

Photo courtesy INS Bitra

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Speak easy on the Net

I came across an odd little study last week. Researchers at Sydney's University of New South Wales have found that therapy and counselling over the Internet is equally effective in combatting depression as the same thing in person.

That makes no sense! Isn’t therapy one of the few things that is immune to the Internet, effective purely because of the relationship two people – the therapist and the patient –build up through meetings over a period of time? As the patient slowly begins to trust the therapist, he starts to open up and talk more about the issues plaguing him. Then how can the same thing be equally effective over an impersonal medium like the Internet?

Turns out, it is because of this very element of impersonality that therapy over the Internet is more successful. The anonymity offered by the fact that the patient is not actually sitting in the therapist’s office, allows him to feel freer with his thoughts and emotions. It emerges that one of the biggest hindrances in the process of regular therapy is the facade of everything is okay that the patient puts up for the therapist’s benefit. Over the Internet, the patient does not find this necessary and voices his troubles sooner, hence solving them sooner.

Then there’s none of the social stigma attached with therapy. No sitting in the waiting room and wondering if somebody will recognise you. Or even the hassle of getting an appointment or commuting.

This is beginning to sound reasonable. I think I know just what they mean when they say that the anonymity offered by speaking to an unknown therapist at the other end of an Internet connection is liberating. I’m part of the generation that grew up when the Internet was becoming popular and one of the first things we experimented with was chatting. We’ve logged on to chat rooms before they became the hunting grounds of paedophiles and sex addicts and frequently asked complete strangers, “a/s/l?”

Each one of us has had a close friend that we never met; a stranger whom we met in a chat room and got seriously pally with. Whom we told our every secret, every devilish thing we ever did. After all, this was someone who was not a part of our milieu and had nothing invested in it. Their only version of it was the one we painted, from our point of view. They were faceless (though photos were often exchanged), voiceless commentators who were sympathetic to our point of view and, better still, couldn't tell on us because they were not a part of our ‘real’ world.

It was like having an imaginary friend who was your wingman, who always stuck up for you, and never ratted on you; without being considered loony. Like talking aloud to yourself. But having an excuse for it, so no one would think you’re mad.

It was therapeutic.

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times today

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lights in the sky

When you encounter a riverfront like the Shanghai Bund, it’s easy to see why the earliest cities were always built by the banks of a river — it becomes a lively hub of activity. Shanghai’s historical administrative buildings line one side of the Bund along the Huangpu, creating a regal line-up of sedate, impressive buildings.

On the other side is the new Pudong district, the forever-twinkling downtown area, with its office buildings and the riverside restaurants. It’s also where the iconic Orient Pearl TV tower, the third tallest in the world, looms on the skyline like a glittering jewel.

On the slightly overcast Shanghai evening, the Bund seems like the very place to go for a relaxing stroll after a shopping spree at the adjoining Nanjing Street. There are skateboarders and kite flyers, kids with their grandparents, lovers and families out for a walk. Roaming peddlers sell sticks of barbecued meat that sizzle in the cool evening temptingly. And the irresistible river ferries, strung up with fairy lights, seem to be beckoning us. We hop on to one for a dinner cruise. For the next couple of hours, Shanghai glitters and sparkles past the railing, as we sit back and enjoy the breeze and a slow meal.

a version of this will be published in the hindustan times tomorrow

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dogs at night

I haven't done one of these in a while. Andthen, suddenly, this thought automatically totalled up to 55.

Last night, when we came home at midnight, the dogs downstairs started barking madly; each one competing with the other in piercing the quiet of the late hour.
They probably woke the entire building up.
I wonder who's fault that was – ours for coming home late, or the neighbours', for having two noisy dogs.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

idle thoughts

June 23
Everything seems clearer when it rains. Like a mist has lifted. Or some kindly soul, spotting a smudge on my spectacles, has wiped them clean. Colours seem sharper: the brown of the tree bark seems to turn a warmer shade, the red of the new leaves is brighter. Sights that I would normally miss, leap out at me. The man at the raddi shop, picking up a red coke can at a time, and hammering it flat. The crowd of people waiting to cross the street standing in a long line side by side, instead of a huddle like they normally do. The reflection of the sky in the puddle, shivering lightly in the breeze. The echo of the hammer from the construction site two lanes away.
I'm more self contained too, during the monsoon. I need people and the distractions they provide much lesser. Sitting by the window, I read or work or listen to music, and am a complete unit. There is a contentment that manifests itself as delirious joy on the overcast mornings and an indulgent melancholy on dusky evenings.
I'm happy when it rains.

June 19
Yesterday, a loud confident voice drew away from my corner in the office towards the TV. “Shiney is a good man.” It was the actor’s wife Anupam Ahuja, proclaiming her husband’s innocence in the rape case he’s implicated in.
I wondered about her then, about what must be going on in her head. From what the cops say, it seems pretty certain that Shiney is, in fact, guilty of the crime he’s accused of or, if nothing else, an extramarital affair with his bai that went wrong. What would make a woman stand up in front of so many people after all that and proclaim her husband’s innocence so calmly and confidently?
Does she, despite it all, believe that her husband is innocent? That not only is he not a rapist, but he is also a loving and loyal man? Is that why she’s not turning away with a shudder of disgust?
Or is she simply being the good Indian wife: sticking by her man no matter what storm of controversy he is caught in? But does that mean she condones his extramarital affair (best case scenario) / rape (worst case scenario)? Or does she fail to consider the implications of the heinous crime her husband has possibly committed? Does she understand the implications and still choose to stand by him and support him?
Or far more interesting yet. Maybe she knows just exactly what he’s done, understands fully the implications of his actions and their comment on the man, and has chosen, despite it all, to stick by him because his career gives her the money, fame, and comfort that she wants.

Incidentally, do check out this article that is so full of the biases that so many amongst us have. It reminds me (and some of the older readers may remember that post) of the time when I lived in this 20 floor building in Wadala where the service staff and domestic help were not allowed to use the lift when a resident was in one of them. I found that infuriating and would always ask them to come in when I was there. They'd agree if I was alone, but never if another resident was always present. In fact, I'd get a stinker of a look from the other resident for even asking.