An untold tale from the old.
The protagonists? – Havelock, a beautiful island off the Andaman, the sea, the people struggle, and a few stranded tourists. (guest appearance by a cyclone too)
When? – May 2004
Havelock islands – a beautiful, serene stretch of land or a collection of beaches situated to the east of the Andaman. Famous for its quite and serene beauty, and lavish white sand beaches. Havelock had been a favourite among the tourists visiting the island chains of the Andaman for long.
One usually takes a ferry from the capital town of Port Blair to reach Havelock by sea. It takes 2 – 2.5 hours of sailing before you could spread your legs at the famous Radhanagar beach.
It was May 2004, and we were on our annual trip to this quite island paradise. We reached Havelock early in the morning, after 2 days of stay at the Port Blair. Our itinerary showed the rest of the day booked to make the most of the sea, sun, and sand at the Radhanagar beach before heading back to the capital next day.
There weren’t many options for accommodation on those days, and the Dolphin resorts was the only available refuge. We spent an eventful day at the beach, and a great evening from the comfort of our sea facing cottages. And as we hoped to wrap up yet another memorable trip after dinner, lightning struck.
The TV reported a cyclone scare at the Indian ocean, along with typhoon like circumstances forcing the cancellation of all sea bound ferries for the next day. We had to ditch any hope of returning to the capital and had to extend our stay be one more day. While it upset our itinerary, it was also a welcome surprise in the form of one more day at the island paradise.
So while I enjoyed one more day of the sea, the sun, and the sand, my dad ran from pillar to post making sure we get a passage aboard the first ferry next day. It was done. Thankfully for the cooperation of the local Bengali guide we had at the island – Manik da.
Manik da arranged for 3 tickets aboard the first motor vessel which was scheduled to leave with the government officials and teachers heading back to mainland for holidays. An extra day in the serenity of Havelock, reservation with the special ferry, what could possibly go wrong.
5 am, next day – we were already at the dock waiting to board our ferry back to the capital. The dock was also swarming with hundreds of locals even so early in the morning. Manik da informed us about the local agenda of laying a siege to all vessels scheduled to leave the island port.
Something to do with the ferry fares and daily availability had stirred up a protest from the locals who depended heavily on their connectivity with the mainland for survival. For months they had been quietly raising the issue with the shipping corporation, and the local administration but to no effect. Finally on the ill-fated day of our return, they had decided to hold all vessels hostage before their demands are heard of.
And so we were stuck, along with the many other stranded tourists, government officials, teachers, and doctors. We were confined to the decks of our ferry while the local ruled the roost. The 3 member police team looked helpless and largely at the mercy of the locals. 5 am, became 8, and 8 soon became 11. Yet there was no news of any relief or rescue.
In the meantime, MV Katchal, the scheduled daily ferry reached Havelock at 9. And it was immediately taken into hostage too. The locals were jubilant to have had 2 ferries in their control. A sure measure to make the shipping corporation lend them a ear. But yet for the most of the day, the director of shipping managed to evade any contact.
Manik da had been a great source of help amidst all this. Supplying us with fresh food, water, and latest news every now and then. While he supported the cause of the locals, he was equally embarrassed for us getting caught in between.
Someone said the protest was called off and the ships will be let off soon. Then someone said the other boat was planning to breakthrough its lines. But when nothing significant happened, we somehow resigned to our fate of being stuck without much hope. The director of shipping was still not contactable and as such no one could comment when likely the siege was to be lifted.
It was soon afternoon and myself and my father, along with few other co-hostages were casually lounging on the other side of the deck when someone pointed out at something towards the horizon. I looked hard, training my young eyes to spot a slowly moving object gradually entering the bay.
By this time, the news had reached the locals too as many rushed to the edge of the dock to salvage as much details as possible. It had to be a catamaran, but it was still good 1 hour away from us. And we waited impatiently. Often looking up at the direction of the incoming vessel, making sure it was still on its way towards the jetty. We all hoped to be rescued. The news was ripe that the director of shipping himself was aboard the slowly approaching catamaran.
by 5 pm, the new vessel reached close proximity to make enough details. It bored the flags and insignia of the Indian government. We were sure it was not another tourist boat coming to share the same fate. All feet were on the deck by then, watching anxiously as the vessel made progress at a painfully slow pace.
But as soon as the catamaran dropped anchor, to the much delight of the locals, the next 30 minutes seemed like a fast forward. We watched from the deck as a strong contingent of CRPF marched into the dock. The locals were immediately pushed back and our stranded vessels were secured. There were at least 2 CRPF jawan against each local as the tide slowly turned. We were supplied with food boxes and water bottles. But we were equally anxious to watch the proceedings at the dock.
Thankfully the authorities decided to resolve the situation with dialogue. The director of shipping headed to the circuit house along with other officials and the leaders of the local resistance. The stranded vessels left the jetty soon after. And by 7-ish we had already hit the high seas.
We rode on a rough sea and a tough luck to finally reach the capital by nightfall. Thankfully our agent in the city was thoughtful enough to send us a car. We got back to the hotel and crashed on the bed, leaving behind a day full of anxiety, turmoil, and simple misfortune.
Next day, we learned more about the siege and the outcomes. The talks were not successful and the director of shipping had cancelled all connectivity to this little paradise island with immediate effect. We immediately felt sorry for the locals as we knew how that was going to effect their struggle for survival. In our interactions with Manik da we had come to know how our ordeal was nothing compared to the struggle the locals do to survive on a daily basis.
Soon after we left Andaman and flew back to our city of joy. Leaving behind the people and the problems forever and bringing along memories – some happy, some ever lasting. Few months later, the entire belt was heavily battered by the Tsunami. Which must have added more woes to than there was. But life went on.
As of today, Havelock island is still one of the serene and beautiful places to visit in India. In fact its popularity rose to greater height after the Tsunami. Now it boasts more tourist attractions and accommodations than ever. The connectivity with the capital too has improved many fold. I had many friends who had visited the island paradise in the last 10 years, not a single of them found anything to complaint about.
But our trouble at the paradise will now live forever in my mind as a great tale to enthral one and all.