An island off Port Blair that was once the British administrative centre for the Andamans is now just tumbling rubble. Lakshmi Krupa potters around the ruins
“There are no more ferries today. The weather is too rough,” a stern voice from behind the ticket counter announces. I am at the Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports Complex in Port Blair from where ferries take tourists on to the many of the surrounding islands like North Bay and Viper. I am interested, though, in the famed Ross Islands. From Port Blair, the boats, on most days, operate until 2 p.m. But as luck would have it, I was there on the wrong day. “We can take you for Rs.500 on a private motorboat,” a stranger offers. I decide to come back when the weather is fine instead. “Do you want to try some water sports?” he asks. I resist, but there are many others who are giving it a go. After all, Andamans is ‘the’ place for water sports. A few days later, when the rain gods show mercy, with a Rs. 90 ticket, I buy myself a seat on the government ferry to Ross Island. Once off the jetty, I come face to face with a building in ruins, engulfed by trees and home to birds of different varieties.
The entire island, now under the Indian Navy, is a museum of sorts, with the crumbing decay of old British buildings. In his video promoting the Andamans as a tourist destination, actor Tom Alter refers to Ross Island, the administrative centre of Andamans where British officers once lived, and recalls how it was then called the Venice of the East. Ross is far from being Venice today. Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’ comes to mind: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of the colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.” The irony continues to hit home when one realises that the island’s only inhabitants now are deer, peacocks, hens and other birds.
Ross Island presents some rare photo opportunities. Picture a patch of green that was once was the tennis court of the gentlemen and their ladies. Today, it plays host to a herd of deer ambling about lazily. Peahens slowly pecking away and sparrows flitting about busily… Ross is an odd combination of neatly laid pathways and old buildings in the throes of destruction. Walking around the cobbled path, I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like, back in the day when the Sahib and his Mem sat down for tea in the beautiful lawns with the sea forming a perfect backdrop.
I wonder if the island could have enriched our views of our past if the original buildings were restored and maintained and saved from this awe-inspiring yet somewhat macabre fate.
Skeletal structures of officers’ homes, a bakery, a printing press, a hospital, cemetery and a pond all lead up to the spectacular roofless remains of a Presbytarian Church built of stone. A board in front of the church waxes eloquent on its glorious past and informs that it had window frames made from Burma teak and glass panels behind the altar made of beautifully etched stained glass from Italy. “The quality of wood was so good that it survived the vagaries of weather for over 100 years,” it says. A Japanese Bunker right at the entrance of Ross is a remnant of Japan’s control over the island during World War .
Back in Port Blair, while visiting the Cellular Jail, easily among the most well-kept tourist destinations of the country, I thought of the ironic fates of these two different spaces.
The powers-that-be had turned a place as beautiful, with views as breathtaking, as Port Blair into a grim and gruesome prison, but time had taken its toll on beautiful Ross and brought its reign to an abrupt end, which is in its own way gruesome.