Andaman by Manju Kak

I met Jean Mac Floret on a beach of white gold and he said to me I am a gardener. I make for people beautiful gardens. I make them with flowers and leaves that I like. In Burgundy the winters are cold. So I come here to the sand and beaches of the Andaman. To Havelock. For seventeen years I am coming here. Many French come to South Madras.


Because of the Mother? Pondicherry? I ask.


Maybe, he says. I knew of yoga before I first came, he says. I had been to Monghyr in Bihar for two months. Bihar School of Yoga … you know? And you, he asks, what of you?


I tell him the story of my life. It takes four sentences.


Yet you do not look happy, he asks.


I carry my hell with me all the time. That is my burden.


Leave it, leave it behind and go, he says.


How can I leave a son’s life behind? How can I leave the memory of Kargil’s misery, this terrible war we had with Pakistan and go. Go where?


This man next to me who is his father but is not my husband does so. Can both of us forget? Someone must carry the burden of memory.


I sit and watch the aquamarine water turn inky blue at its rim where sea touches horizon, that tip where my keys run letters smoothly upon the edges of my mind and I hear the thespian, Om Puri’s voice carry in its resounding decibels the story of a witness’s memory of the Cellular Jail that was the Andaman. The Congress Party Minister’s quarrel with the opposing Hindu BJP government’s decision, and the inscribed quotation of Mahatma Gandhi on a granite plaque cannot snatch away the Indian freedom fighter Savarkar’s seven years in jail here, that gave him the name Veer, brave-heart. If he had Hindu fundamentalist leanings so be it. You can enslave my body but you cannot take away from me my right to my tongue, to my thoughts and to my memory, said Savarkar. To change an airport’s name from Veer Savarkar cannot slice off his memory, Minister sahib.


Politics is too linear for me.


I go down to the beach and look for shells. I stumble upon some and bruise my foot. My right foot. The wind and water numb the pain but I will feel it in the quiet of my room when memory haunts me and I will hear the jangle of inmate Savarkar’s chains as he drags his feet and the cry of his fellow prisoner Manish Singh’s `Inquilaab’ or `Freedom’ when he leads a hunger strike in jail. I am in Havelock Island so far away from Port Blair, so far from the memory of Jailor Barry who died on his voyage home to England when white men ruled colonies. Did he know he would never reach? Isn’t that why he cried to his jailors, lash them, whip them, make them work; harder still. He knew he had to hold out. He knew he would never reach home, like his convicts he would be condemned to wander the realms of the homeless, like my sister Usha’s children who run resorts in Ladakh and the Andamans, running … away from themselves … running away from the memory of a childhood when their father abandoned them … running resorts for other waifs, wayfarers who are questing like Mac Floret  – gardener, beach-companion,  who makes beauty in other people’s gardens and not his own, who asks me, but you do not look happy.


Is that what took me the first day I landed at Port Blair, before I saw Havelock, to the cemetery on Ross Island (on a borrowed navy junk that the host, an Admiral, reluctantly lent) even as the Public Relations  Officer, the budget-sized bureaucrat, our protocol man from the remote town of Bhagalpur, in Bihar, rolled his eyes and syllables to recount for me the history of its heyday before the Japs invaded, about 1943 it was, and destroyed a Church (out of which grows a tree trunk so huge that it must have taken more than these sixty years of obsolescence to arrive at); a hospital, a subordinate’s club, a gymkhana, a pool, a bakery, a store, and still I trace my steps down to a cemetery where a girl and her mother lie buried in the same grave, wife and infant daughter of an apothecary whose circumstances brought him from an English village in Lancaster to a windy island in the Bengal Bay, to return carrying in his leather strapped bags a wanton memory of the death of wife and daughter that too would never let go.

Sacred to the memory of Alison, The much beloved wife of the apothecary AS Xavier who departed this life on 9th April, 1865 aged … years 10 months and 5 days. And Laura Gertrude, Daughter of apothecary AS Xavier, who departed 6 April, 1862, aged 3 months 5 days


The deep mohua forest drips its ambrosia on an elephant swaying its trunk and flapping its ears to the call of the mahout. A bumpy jungle ride this afternoon after a leisurely lunch of curry with coconut and my footsteps on the rocky sand could lead me to the white gold beach of Radha, north of Havelock. Why dip into the forest when the waves of the Indian Ocean bellow like a conch shell. He brings me golden tea. It is piping hot in a glass and with it is a wedge of lemon and loose brown sugar. His name is Alex, Alex Rajan he says. And he can give me a hut with a mattress. A bulb as well. If I walk further from Pristine Resort I will come to Oriental Legend where I can see the aquamarine sea turn into a fan of peacock feathers through coconut groves. Coloured hammocks swing in the shade. Trees stand knee deep in the ocean suckling their roots in shallow sand knowing their time has come to turn into driftwood – tables in some Delhi socialite’s drawing room. They call to the ocean of the sorrow of their impending parting as a long canoe paddles a drifting Burmese wooden temple to a village. Burmese fishermen tied it to a bamboo raft and threw it into the sea after the feast of the Goddess of the River, knowing it would turn up on some other shore as a gift from them. Back, on the other side of the island, `Wild Orchid Resort’ tames the temple with Christmas lights. White-skinned western holidaymakers sway under red fishtail paper lanterns to Norah’s music and eat the soft white flesh of tandoori red snapper. Some coffee and banana cake too. The roti and naan are warm, just right.


The next day the pocket-sized bureaucrat in Port Blair has sent a substitute, Mr Chakravarty, a lower division clerk just promoted to inspector for `protocol’. He is troubled. He is a Bengali from Calcutta and sings to himself `akela kaise’? A name, a phone number, a return ticket from Havelock and how is he to manage it akela, alone? Now and then he tries: `Excise Department,’ he nudges at museums, shops, or like this last one, a fancy restaurant, which embarrassingly makes no impact on the many earringed Bangalore boy, Benny, who nevertheless invites us for dinner at the Wild Orchid, a resort he manages for Suleiman and Ali Zambet, ship owners who ferry copra and are local born – before 1942. That is before when the Japs came and destroyed British colonial buildings and dragged fishermen and shot them for being British spies even though Indian hero Subhash Bose, our Netaji, had come by and hoisted the Indian flag, the `tiranga jhanda’.


Now Chakravarty has to manage protocol for us, and when he does, like getting me on to the bridge of the boat, he is all smiles so that the scruffy curls of his balding head hip hip hooray with the delight of new found confidence, but when at the Dolphin Resort he cannot ask for a better room, he is downcast or when he has to search for me walking down from Jungle View to Radha Beach, he wrings his hands wondering where oh where, and how is he to sift the shoreline or the jungle track for an errant tourist when all he is accustomed to is the hard tarmac of Calcutta’s pavements upon which rolls his chartered bus to his small apartment in Sealdah where he brings his daily quota of  fresh rohu fish and plays with his child while his wife cooks it in mustard. The pleasures of enforcement of `Excise’ on a remote island in the Indian Ocean have not yet sunk in, the freebies of unadulterated bureaucratic power.


Chakravarty works under a Superintendent Excise whom he calls Super and an Assistant Commissioner whom he calls AC sometimes DC. When the dashing Super, a Mr Das, reels off info, the keen Bhagalpur Bihari DC signals to him to shut up as he is taking the main lead when he should be humble and leave the podium to him, his boss,  then Chakravarty smirks – Das should learn lessons in bumbling from him, if he wants to rise.


A ride back in the Lieutenant Governor’s launch is accomplished with some alarm on Chakravatry’s side after many phone calls to Das. The yacht slices through water growing dark in the setting sun, which is an hour behind time. The sea is friendly as a purring cat before dusk turns night.


Tonight the Admiral is waiting on the driveway in a Hawaiian shirt. He greets us with customary good cheer and courtesy but the bottle of Johnny Walker whisky we offer is for him sheer happiness, and then he is all `sir’ and `sir’ and `m’dam’.


Over dinner he says `you haven’t? ’, and to come to Andaman and not snorkel? His car will take us and so will his boat, and though no apologies were offered for the junk that had reluctantly taken us to Ross, it was implicit.


In the next day’s sunlight I head to North Bay. The motor boat struggles against waves that buttress it, moves with persistence towards the quiet of the bay, the flamboyance of the water just a metre deep where the coral reef is alive with crimson, purple, finger and orange coral, and a bed of live fish that I have just seen painted and stuffed in the State Aquarium – zebra and gold. The shore is laden with dead white coral, forlorn of the richness of life. I think it looks like an offering a Potentate makes, a purging to purify itself again, to win grace.


At night the wind begins to howl a liturgical mourn. I watch the distant night waves curl frothily like the greying Admiral’s errant sideburns.


In the morning the Indian Airlines aircraft is a happy gurgling whale bobbing landwards, away from a brewing subterranean storm that is growing full-bodied by the hour. I do not know that a day later the Japanese will call it a Tsunami. When I open the next day’s paper I cry for Andaman. Mac Floret, I cry, do you make a deep-sea garden, do you grow for the mermaids, garlands of flowers and leaves? Or was it the sea laying a wreath for my son, for the mountain dead of the Kargil war?



Manju Kak is a short story writer. She is also a critic, an art and cultural archivist and a women's activist. Her published works of short fiction include First Light in Colonelpura, Penguin, 1995; Requiem for an Unsung Revolutionary, Ravi Dayal, 1996; Just One Life and other Stories, imprintOne dist, Cambridge University Press, 2013. A socio-cultural history of Uttarakhand, In the Shadow of Nanda Devi, Niyogi Books is forthcoming.

Her edited works include Nicholas Roerich - a Quest & Legacy, Niyogi Books, 2013 and Whose Media: A Woman's Space (Ed. and Author), Concept Publishers, 1998.

Her short fiction (described as feminist) and non-fiction, essays, critical reviews, and articles have appeared in anthologies, newspapers, journals, and magazines in India and abroad since 1989. Her scholarship and curatorial work in visual ethnography and art/socio-cultural studies on the Himalayas is extensive.

She is the recipient of the Hawthornden (Edinburgh), Breadloaf, Charles Wallace (Stirling, Scotland) and Ministry of Culture Senior fellowships amongst others. She has a PhD in the History of Art from the National Museum, New Delhi. .