Next stop: Havelock Island

The class topper in school, the ‘all-rounder’ in college or the boss’s blue-eyed wonder. Everybody gets upstaged at some point by the bigger, better deal. This is what happened when the gleaming MV Makruzz glided into the Phoenix Bay jetty at Port Blair harbour. It immediately snatched all the attention away from the hapless ‘Katchal’ the government ferry service to Havelock Island, located 57 km away. Judging by the throngs of passengers taking photographs in front of the Makruzz, the Rs. 1500 fare (two-way) is hardly a deterrent. Before the MV Makruzz, the government ferry was one of the few options to get to Havelock. You could also zip over the waves on a Pawan Hans helicopter, provided it takes off from Port Blair (apparently services are sporadic). A seaplane service has also been launched recently. A much faster and obviously, expensive option.

We (my brother, mother and yours truly) were ushered inside the Makruzz by smartly attired staff. It was like stepping inside a plane. Big plush seats with panoramic windows. Much like the business class seats I pass by on the way to economy. And with enough leg space to play a more advanced form of footsie. The excitement was palpable. Everybody was grinning at everybody. The only discordant note was four decidedly chunky moustachioed characters straight out of an 80’s summer blockbuster. For some strange reason, they were all dressed alike. In Hawaiian shirts and bush shorts. Thankfully, their wives and kids showed better sartorial sense. I immediately nicknamed this quartet ‘The Flab Four’. The Flab Four and their entourage settled in the seats behind us. They tried to outdo each other with humorous asides, which only they found hilarious. The entourage maintained a stoic silence lest they might be seen as travelling with the Flab Four. Suddenly, the 90-minute duration to Havelock looked a bit longer.   

The Makruzz glided out of Port Blair harbour leaving in its wake local intra-island ferries, a couple of gleaming yachts, and many rusting heaps of floating scrap metal – boats that were damaged beyond repair. A chilling remainder of the 2004 Tsunami. The passengers settled down to watch a promotional film on the islands. Everybody was absorbed in the film except for the Flab Four who were chattering away like a bunch of monkeys with a serious case of ADD. I amused myself with fantasies of the four of them being made to walk the plank by the captain. And everybody cheers as each one of them jump clumsily into the sea. The entourage cheers the loudest.

I tore myself away from these cheerful fantasies and started concentrating on the film. I learnt that Havelock is the largest island in the Ritchie’s Archipelago, a chain of islands lying east of the Great Andaman, the main Andaman archipelago. I also learnt that whenever footage of indigenous Andamanese and Nicobari tribes were shown, people start sniggering and the word 'savage' was liberally sprinkled. It was more than a bit disturbing. A man in a recording studio located thousands of miles away tried to describe the charm of these islands in his best baritone. I must admit, he tried his damnedest. But it was a no contest from the very beginning. What would you look at? Images of beautiful islands on a TV screen. Or just glance out and see the same islands floating serenely past your window.

A brilliant expanse of green rainforest encircled by achingly white sand that flowed gently into a cerulean sea came into view. It wasn’t hard to fathom why Havelock Island has been earmarked for tourism. My soul skipped out and did a merry dance on the glistening sand.

As the Havelock jetty came into view, the slightly comatose crowd roared into action. In time-honoured fashion, everybody rushed to the exit. After a few minutes of confusion, in which announcements were made that nobody would be kept behind on the boat to work as unpaid deckhands, we managed to disembark. I was just happy not to breathe the same air as that of the Flab Four.

Havelock’s beaches were named with great imagination. The jetty was at Beach No. 1. Our resort was at Beach No. 3, there was Beach No. 5 and one of Asia’s best beaches is Beach No. 7. Thankfully, better sense prevailed and the beaches soon came to be known by names that had decidedly more character than numbers.

We passed paddy fields with somnolent cows and lush banana plantations on our short drive to our resort. Located on Govindnagar Beach (Beach No. 3), the resort had cosy wooden cottages set amongst swaying palm trees. It was an inviting sight. Ranjan Biswas, a hospitality veteran who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Satyajit Ray masterpiece, escorted us to our cottage. In an attempt to make small talk, I asked him about Havelock’s numero uno island status. And in a manner befitting a Satyajit Ray masterpiece, Ranjan spoke with great feeling. “Before the tsunami, forget the firangs, even Indians didn’t know much about these islands. Now, everybody is heading here.” I murmured something to the effect that doesn’t necessarily sound too bad. I just managed to stoke the flames higher. "Who says, it’s bad? It’s not bad at all! But you should come only if you can appreciate the beauty of this place. It’s frustrating when people come here and list out one complaint after another – the internet connection is too slow, there’s no Wi-Fi, why there’s no butter chicken on the menu and my personal best, a family complained that it’s too quiet! The only people who enjoy coming here are the divers and the few who genuinely enjoy peace and solitude. I am afraid a few years from now, this will become another Goa or Phuket."

Ranjan’s worries are not unfounded. But then that’s the curse of tourism. I just hope good sense would  keep these islands maintain their idyllic status.

“Very good lobster...try some?” The young man held out a massive claw of a lobster which could have persuaded a New York mugger to hand over his wallet. I declined politely but couldn’t help wonder what it would have tasted like. Especially the way it was cooked on a bed of glowing coals right on the beach. My brother had no such reservations and immediately got busy coaxing the juicy flesh out of the claw. He gave me a look of pity. I turned my attention to the young man, Shubho, a third generation ‘local’. Shubho’s grandfather had escaped to India from East Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. He along with other refugees were given the opportunity to settle in the Andaman Islands. A choice they were not really happy with in the beginning. After escaping the wrath of the Pakistani army, they had harboured hopes of settling in Calcutta, but instead they were sent to a remote area. Shubho’s grandfather landed up in Havelock and immediately realised that they could not have got a better deal. The fertile land yielded them good harvests of paddy, betel nut and coconuts. And with tourism taking off, most of the locals are now being employed by various resorts and tourist agencies. Shubho himself runs a home stay (right next to our resort) where divers come and park themselves for months on end. Shubho likes divers. No Wi-Fi. No 50” TV. No room service. All they need is a basic bed raised some inches off the ground (the slithery denizens of Havelock have right of way), good home-cooked food and the sea, a soft whisper away.

Simple and uncomplicated. Just like life should be.

From the time we landed at Havelock, I have been asked at least half a dozen times whether I have been to Radhanagar Beach a.k.a Beach No. 7. One lazy afternoon, we trained our sights on this beach which was ranked by TIME in 2004 as one of the best beaches in Asia. Radhanagar Beach effortlessly lives up to all the hype. The beach stretches for a good 2 km from one end to another. A thick forest of tall mahua trees stand firm as sentinels guarding it. As we ambled around, we came upon a creek flowing languidly into the sea. A little raft made of empty plastic bottles was bobbing nearby. I waded knee-deep into the creek to get to the raft and do a spot of creek-rafting. My brother gently reminded me that this was the beach where an American tourist caught the fancy of a heavyweight saltwater crocodile while snorkelling in the clear waters. I reined in my inner Indiana Jones and waded out as fast. Crocodile attacks are rare. There have been about 25 attacks in the last 24 years. But somehow I didn’t feel like challenging the odds.

 We watched the sun sink gently into a bed of melting copper. A lone seagull cried plaintively as it flew across a sky awash with crimson and gold. I made myself comfortable on the soft powdery sand and tried to eavesdrop on the furtive murmurings of the waves.

It's a routine I wouldn't have any qualms getting used to.