Port Blair

 

 

During 1960-1961 many significant developments took place at the home front. The happiest was the arrival of Shubha. Mausi took decisive steps for taking control of her life and those of her three children after the vacuum left by the untimely death of Mausaji. She joined the B. Ed. course in the Government Teacher Training College in Simla. Shubhas arrival lifted out the family from the shock of losing Mausaji. Mausi occupied herself with her studies. Jiji fully involved herself with the task of raising a new born baby. Radha Jiji was finishing her Senior Cambridge Course, Shachindra and Narendra were studying in the St. Edward School, a school walking distance from home. Yogi became a big brother to his baby sister. Normalcy returned in the home. But a big surprise awaited all of us. Pitaji was appointed as the Chief Commissioner of the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

 

Pitajis transfer to Port Blair, the headquarters of the Chief Commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, involved a shift from a height of 7500 feet to sea level. The Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar comprised a group of over three hundred islands lined almost North-South in the Bay of Bengal. About thirty of these are inhabited. The mainland of the country is, at the closet point, at least 700 miles from these islands. Because of their remoteness and inaccessibility, the British Government used these islands for setting up their penitentiary for internment of hard core criminals and freedom fighters. It was impossible to escape from these islands as the sea was infested with killer sharks and 700 miles of the Bay of Bengal could not be negotiated in a dinghy. In common mans parlance these islands were called Kala Pani. I came across a book in the library of the University of Delhi with a catchy title, Islands in the Marigold Sun. In this book it was mentioned that these islands were volcanic and many of them had hilly appearance surrounded by dark coloured sea water. Also, some of them had lagoons rich in fine corals and diverse sea life. It created in my mind a picture different from what one commonly associates of a desolate place with the name Kala Pani. I now looked forward to my first visit to Port Blair.

 

Shubha with Jiji, Shachindra and Narendra went with Pitaji to Port Blair. Mausi and Yogi stayed behind in Simla as she was to complete her B.Ed. course. Radha Jiji had finished her schooling and was to join college in July. My life in the hostel of the Ramjas College in Delhi remained undisturbed. Towards the end of April 1961, Pitaji came to Delhi on some official work. By then I had written my examinations of the second year of the course and was ready to go to Port Blair with Pitaji for my summer vacations.

 

I travelled with Pitaji by the Kalka Mail from Delhi to Calcutta. I think it was the first time we were travelling together with no other member of the family with us. Krishna Murari Chachaji was supervising the construction of the Rihand Dam. He was posted in Mirzapur. He met us at the Allahabad Railway Station and travelled up to Mughal Sarai and shared a three-hour journey with Pitaji. We passed Jamshedpur. A fellow companion of our train journey asked me what the city of Jamshedpur was known for. I wish I had visited Jamshedpur earlier because then the industrial metallurgy of iron would have made sense to me.

 

At Calcutta we went to 1/5 Rowland Road where Dinanath Babaji lived with two of his three sons, their wives and grandchildren. I became attached to Shamnath Chachaji and Rajjo Chachiji. They loved me as their son from my first contact with them. Shamnath Chachaji was a jute exporter. He asked me whether I would like to see a ship from inside. At that time Calcutta was a busy river port as jute products were exported to all over the world from there. I went with him to the riverside and saw a ship from inside. I found it to be cramped for space without realising that many sea journeys were lying ahead of me. At the end of the summer vacations I cruised through the Hooghly River on my return journey by ship from Port Blair.

 

Pitaji and I were in Calcutta for 3-4 days as the flight to Port Blair was weekly. In these reminiscences I want to recall all those whom I remember even after 50 years. One such person was Ram Lakhan. He was Shamnath Chachajis driver and spoke Bhojpuri. Of all the dialects of Hindi I liked Bhojpuri because of its sweetness and pleasant phrases. Ram Lakhans way of speaking charmed me. He would guide me on what I should do in my future visits to Calcutta en route to Port Blair. I went with Pitaji to visit Mataji. Pitaji also took me to the Kalighat temple. I found it crowded and not equal to the fame it had. I went with Pitaji to visit his maternal uncle, Radhey Shyam Chitlangia. Radhey Shyam Babaji was the General Manager of the Khurda jute mill. He lived in a spacious bungalow on the riverbank of the Hooghly River. His son Purshottam Chachaji was a student of the diploma course in jute technology in the Institute of Jute Technology, an institution facing the Surya building on the Ballygunge Circular Road. Purshottam Das Chitlangia (P D Chitlangia) played a key role in my life 40 years later. I will come to that if I am able to carry forward this narration to the period 1995-2003.

 

Pitaji and I boarded a Dakota plane from Dumdum airport. The plane was a 20- seater without air-conditioning. It was my first flight. After reaching an altitude of about 10,000feet it cooled down inside, but the noise inside the plane was unbearable. We flew across the Sundarbans delta of the Ganges and crossed from West Bengal to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and finally into Burma. The flight route involved a fuel stop in Rangoon. The Dakota plane did not carry sufficient aviation fuel for journey to Port Blair from Calcutta and back. The aerodrome in Port Blair did not have refuelling facility. Also, its airstrip could be used by Dakota plane for landing and takeoff during daylight hours only on a day with clear visibility. When we reached Rangoon a radio message was given to the pilot. It said that it was raining in Port Blair on that day and the visibility was not good for landing. The weather in Port Blair was expected to improve the following day. This unexpected development made me happy as I now was in Burma and the domestic flight was turn ing into my first foreign journey. I was carrying an Emergency Certificate, which was good enough for a one-day journey break in Rangoon. We were provided accommodation in a good hotel by Indian Airlines. Pitajis friend Kamal Saheb who was a timber merchant and perhaps a principal purchaser of the famous Andaman wood was living in Rangoon. He came to the airport to meet Pitaji. With his car we did the sightseeing in Rangoon. I saw the grand Irrawaddy River. The beautiful golden Pagoda was on the riverbank. I saw from outside a manmade hill built over a huge meditation hall. I saw Buddhist monks in ochre robes all over the town. In the evening Kamal Saheb showed us an open night market selling odds and ends. In this market all the shopkeepers were women. Pitaji purchased Hawaii flip-flops and bush shirts for the children. In the evening when I was having dinner with Pitaji I tilted my soup bowl towards myself. Pitaji pointed out that soup bowl should always be tilted away from the body. I readily accepted it. I remembered that when I was in school Pitajis friend Mehra Saheb took us out to the Gaylord restaurant in Connaught Place. I ate the wafers served with the ice cream before I started eating my ice cream. Mehra Saheb said to Pitaji, Maheshwari, you have not taught your children how to eat. I felt bad and could not get rid of that comment from my mind. In the dining room of the hostel when I was eating omelette by holding the fork in the right hand and the knife in the left hand my friend Sudhir observed it. He showed me to hold knife in the right hand and fork in the left hand. I readily accepted his suggestion on how to use a knife and fork. Once in the restaurant of the International House of the University of Chicago I was eating with knife and fork. A fellow resident from Hong Kong observed me and said that I must be from a commonwealth country as I was eating the way the British do.

 

We flew to Port Blair the next morning. The pilot had received the message that the weather in Port Blair was clear and it was safe for landing. It was 7th May, 1961 when I landed in Port Blair. I remember the day as it was Rabindranath Tagores centenary, which was being celebrated all over the world. In the evening on 7th May the Bengali community of Port Blair had organised the centenary celebration. The main activity was the play Chitrangda. Narendra was given a cameo role in it. It was not disclosed to Pitaji. Narendra played the part of Prince Dhruva. He had to say one line, I am called by the king.

 

The Chief Commissioner stayed in the Government House. His official car had the national emblem instead of the number plate. He was the Head of the Government of the Union Territory. Subsequently the office of the Chief Commissioner of this Union Territory was elevated to that of Lieutenant Governor. The Government House was located on an elevation commanding a majestic view of Ross Island and the sea. There was a telescope in the balcony of the room used by me. I could follow the arrival of ships when remotely visible from the horizon to the harbour. Photographs depicting history of these islands were mounted on the walls. One picture that I remember was that of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose taking the guard of honour. These islands were taken over by Japan from the British Government during the Second World War. Netaji was the supreme commander of the Azad Hind Fauj and being an ally of Japan was accorded the status of the Head of State by the Japanese when these islands were under their occupation.

 

The staff of the Government House was drawn without exception from the prisoners serving life sentences, who had been rehabilitated and given employment. They had no reservations in sharing their criminal past. They also recalled the period of Japanese occupation. None of them had good words for the Japanese. According to them they were ruthless and cruel. There was no reason for us to be afraid of the staff as they had left behind their criminal past and lived a normal life. In the huge compound of the Government House there were pineapple, banana and coconut plantations. The pineapples grown in the Government House were sweet and of the best quality. We could ask for pineapples either cut as cubes, or in slices or in crushed form, or as fresh juice at any time of the day and were readily served. Of course, we could have lived on tender coconut water, pineapple and bananas if we wanted. The food served in the Government House was mainly dosa with sambhar and coconut chutney, idly, vada and rice. Other than greens no other vegetable grew there. Only vegetables such as potatoes or onions, which did not perish on the sea journey could be obtained from the market, that too as and when a ship arrived from the mainland. All grocery items including salt came from the mainland. As milk was also not readily available Jiji had kept a cow which gave us milk, dahi and ghee. Everyone living in Port Blair except us enjoyed delicious sea food. I overheard some Bengalis mentioning that they miss river fish. For the many visitors to the Government House, Jiji managed with coconut barfi, Mysore-paak and banana chips cooked in her kitchen

 

Shubha was the most photographed baby of the family. She played with kittens and had no problem in lifting them by their ears. Neither the cat nor the kittens minded it. I am not sure if there were some deer in the Government House.

 

I decided to go to the Police Lines for physical training and for shooting practice. I remember a senior police official friendly to me. His name was Mr. Krishnaswamy. Mr Krishnaswamy made me shoot with the big gun 303 in the shooting range and also with his revolver. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was a good shot. On weekends Pitaji took us to a nearby beach in Corbyns Cove. The harbour-master was Sandale Saheb. He was a pleasant and friendly person.

 

The life in Port Blair revolved around social calls among the officials. The senior functionaries supporting the Chief Commissioner in running the administration were the Chief Secretary, Sareen Saheb, the Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Alve, the Principal Engineer, Mr. Gupta, the Chief Conservator of Forest, Mr. Chaudhury, the Conservator of Forest, Mr. Verma, and the Superintendent of the Government Hospital and Dr. Haldar. Dr. Haldar played bridge most of the time and had a cheroot between his lips throughout his waking hours. One could see a cheroot hole between his lips even when he spoke. I remember Dr. Haldar because he taught me to play bridge and gave me a set of notes on how to play bridge. There were other officers whose name I do not remember after 53 years. Pitaji continued to be concerned about my health. He shared it with the medical superintendent of the Government Hospital. I was given a course of multivitamin injections. Let me share here itself that I gained weight during my stay in the US on shifting to a non-vegetarian diet!

 

The life in Port Blair was like the proverbial half-full glass. Most of the officials posted in Andaman and Nicobar saw their life as half-empty glass. They will start counting days from the day of their arrival for their transfer back to the mainland. Life in Andaman and Nicobar was indeed hard as newspapers and post came after gaps of at least three weeks when the ships M. V. Andaman and M. V. Nicobar came from Madras or Calcutta as per sailing schedule. There was no telephone link from Port Blair with the mainland. Air services did not operate for six months after the onset of monsoon at the end of April or latest by the beginning of May. It is appropriate to mention that Pitaji saw life in Port Blair as a full glass and had tenure of five years the longest put in by a Chief Commissioner in the history of island administration.

 

We enjoyed visiting islands accompanying the officials on their tours. Accompanying Pitaji on his tours was a privilege because he used a special boat for his tours called the Police Boat. I once visited an island inhabited by the natives of Onge tribe. It was my first contact with an aboriginal tribe.I had accompanied a social worker who was working with the Onge tribe. The other principal tribes living in Andaman Islands were Great Andamanese, Jarawa and Sentinelese. There was not much to see of tourist interest in Port Blair. Therefore there was no tourism to these islands then. Every visitor to the Andaman and Nicobar islands required prior permission from the administration. The cellular jail was on Ross Island and could be reached only by taking a ferry. I visited the cellular jail and saw the cell in which Veer Savarkar had been held. Devices used to torture prisoners were retained for visitors to see how cruel the British jailers had been. There were two factories in Port Blair. One was the Chatham Saw Mill and the other was Wimco match-factory.

 

What I enjoyed most was the onset of the monsoons. Almost everyday we had torrential rain with thunder and lightning. I could see the approach of the rain from the balcony of my room. My two months of stay came to an end. Pitaji asked Jiji to go with us as Shachindra and Narendra were to be admitted in the boarding of the Modern School in New Delhi. Radha Jiji was to join the Indraprastha College for studying B. A. (History Honours).

 

We sailed by M. V. Andaman to Calcutta. It was a four-day journey. What I remember even today is the most beautiful sunrise I saw in the Bay of Bengal. I am unable to describe in words my experience of seeing a surreal interplay of colours created by nature. After three days of sailing in the Bay of Bengal our ship anchored for the night at the entrance of the main branch of the Hooghly River in the Ganges delta. The following morning, when we cruised toward Calcutta, we saw the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans on both banks of the river. When we reached Diamond Harbour, a river pilot boarded the ship to navigate it to Calcutta. I saw guns placed on the bank near Diamond Harbour. When I asked why the guns were there, I was told that the guns were used for breaking the flow of high tides during tsunami. I was not convinced by the explanation. When we reached Calcutta we went through a river lock system to enable the ship to dock and align itself with the jetty for passengers to disembark. After spending a memorable summer vacation I returned to the Ramjas Colege hostel for the third year of the course.

 

In the third year I studied only the physics courses. I became aware of my weak and outdated basic physics education when I was confronted with elementary problems in physics on reaching the University of Chicago. I was taught physics in the University of Delhi by teachers who were in their fifties. They had their education in physics based on the physics curriculum of the British universities of the late 19th century or the early twentieth century. These physics teachers continued to teach the way they had learnt. Instead of teaching Newtonian mechanics as a structured course based on classical mechanics, they had left it to mathematics teachers. They taught mechanics with emphasis on mathematical manipulations in courses titled Statics and Dynamics. In the physics department I was taught a course titled Properties of Matter based on books written by British authors twenty-five years ago. The mathematical foundation based on courses such as group theory, partial differential equations and linear algebra essential for learning modern physics was conspicuous by its absence. However, I was free of the baggage of subsidiary subjects. I will like to remember some of my physics teachers. I list them in order of the influence they had on me. Mathematical Physics was taught by Professor F. C. Auluck, Complex Variables by Professor A. N. Mitra, Thermodynamics by Dr. Talwar, Geometrical Optics by Dr. Panchapakesan, Properties of Matter by Dr. Machwe, and Physics practicals by Sardar Harnam Singh.The academic year was uneventful.

 

My performance in the final examination of the Physics (Honours) course was perhaps the best in the class. But my overall rank was pulled down to the third position by my earlier dismal performance in the Chemistry subsidiary. Fortunately, it did not come in my way of being awarded once again the science exhibition by the Faculty of Science and the Government of India Merit Scholarship of Rs.100 per month for my postgraduate studies. It will not be out of place to mention that my monthly expenses in the hostel were about Rs 100 per month. I did not use my scholarship money for meeting expenses of my postgraduate studies. In my scheme of things expenses for my postgraduate studies were Pitajis responsibility. I saved my scholarship money in a bank account and used it for meeting my passage expenses when I went to Chicago two years later. Jiji asked me to send the first scholarship amount to the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. I sent Rs. 100 by money order to Pondicherry and received the acknowledgement signature of the Mother, which I have retained with me as a memento. I sent the second scholarship amount of Rs 100 by money order to Bagar-wali Ma. I received blessings of both the mothers and joined the University of Delhi for the M.Sc. (physics) course.

 

Sudhir did not study further and joined National Grindlays Bank as a management trainee. Ashok joined the law course of the University of Delhi and shifted to Jubilee Hall. Chaman Lal, after completing an M.Sc. in mathematics, joined the Mothers School in New Delhi as a mathematics teacher. Shivalingappa completed his M.A. in Political Science and diploma in Russian. I moved from the Ramjas College hostel to the Gwyer Hall.

 

 

 

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