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Saturday, Dec 24, 2005

Metro Plus Chennai

Where time stands still
It's a jaw-dropping walk down the Raj lane, as SHEILA KUMAR discovers


REMAINS OF THE PAST The jetty of the Ross Island

The Andaman group of islands has a lot to offer the
 visitor, from the Cellular Jail, where sadness seeps
from the stones like something out of a Marquez
novel, and coves and beaches where you find shells
 of rare and luminous beauty, to sun-soaked islands
 and coral reefs. However, if I were to choose
 just one among the many attractions, my pick
would undoubtedly be Ross Island.

Named after the marine surveyor Sir Daniel Ross,
 the island sits just a mile from Port Blair's
picturesque Aberdeen Jetty. Ferry services
take you many times a day to the Indian
Navy-controlled island, where, after you pass
the checkpoint, you are on your own, to
explore the verdant, compact isle that stands
 as a solid reminder of times past but not
lamented. Just ten minutes into your walk
along shale-laden paths, past banyan trees
and swaying palms, you run smack into a
ghost civilisation.

Glorious past
It's the Raj, of course. Ross Island was the
administrative seat of the British in this penal
colony, till a massive earthquake hit the
place in 1941, bringing down virtually everything.
 However, traces of a bygone era are all
around, and it takes just a little imagination to
visualise the glory of the time. The Officers'
Mess, the enlisted Men's Mess, the bakery, the
ballroom, the bazaar, even an opera house.
Then there's a lovely church that in its heyday
 had windows of etched Italian glass. A clubhouse,
 granaries, hospital, the library, tennis and squash
courts, a swimming pool, even a desalination
plant. The quarters of the officers stationed
 in the Andamans, the Chief Commissioner's
 Bungalow with 12 bedrooms, an aviary and
 a palm house. And then, the cemetery, a
 sad record of lives lived here on the island.

It's a whole lifestyle captured and lovingly held up
 by giant banyan vines. Because, you see, what
remains of the British HQ is just relics in bricks
 and stone. That it hasn't been all reduced to
 rubble is because of the embrace of the vines
that support and give constructive shape
 to the ruins of a once bustling cantonment.

Here and there, one glimpses the brilliant blue
 sea through the silhouette of palm trees. Deer
 crash about in the undergrowth while birds call
 jeeringly at you. The wind whistles through
tree-tops, the water laps on the white sands
 on the edge of the island. Talk of an idyll.

Trapped memories
Idyll, Ross Island was not, of course. The mainland,
just a mile away, was where hundreds of thousands
of Indians were incarcerated, their lives slipping
away from them in measured amounts. Meanwhile,
 their rulers lived carefully transplanted lives on Ross
Island, complete with formal functions, croquet
games, leisurely laps in the pool and much social
 interaction; can one wonder that Ross Island
was actually called the Paris of the East in the
early 20th Century?

The remains-of-the-day atmosphere suffers
something of a jolt when you come across
cement bunkers, strategically placed facing
Port Blair. Rather like zits on a face of a
beautiful woman. These were placed by the
 Japanese, who conquered the Andaman
Islands from the British during World
 War II, and ruled the place with a ruthlessness
 that had touches of cruelty.

The ruins of a printing press used during the British Rule
Ross Island has a museum, with a pictorial representation
 of all it has seen, all it has gone through. And when
 night falls, with all the suddenness of a blanket thrown
 over the sky, as it does here on the Andamans, the
lights on Ross Island come alive.

Brilliantly lit, it's as if some long-gone Commanding
Officer is hosting a ball; if you peer hard enough,
you just might be able to spot elegant ladies in
 silk and crinoline bustle skirts walking to the
clubhouse on the arms of smart, uniformed officers.

Ross Island withstood the tsunami last year, but just
barely. Go see it before the remains of the Raj
disappear from this spot.

How to get there:
There are regular Indian Airlines and Jet Airways
 flights from Chennai. Ships also make the
journey in season. The temperature stays even
 for most part of the year, between 22ºC
and 33ºC. The best time to visit is between
November and April. December and January i
s the busiest season, so expect heavy crowds.

Port Blair has a reasonable taxi service. Inter-island
 travel is on motorised boats. Avoid country boats
 for the Bay can get wild and currents are strong.

For details, contact, The Directorate of Tourism
Offices of the Andamans, North Main Road Extension,
Anna Nagar West Extension, Chennai, Ph: 26549295.

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