The more Rom studied the map of Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, the more he wanted to visit this herpetological terra incognita. But his American citizenship stood in the way. No foreigner was allowed to travel around this cluster of 500 islands in the 1970s.
Rom wanted to be a citizen of the Earth, but in the real world governed by laws of men, he had to belong to a country. With an American passport he could travel the world with ease. If he opted for an Indian passport, he’d have to jump through onerous paper hoops to get a visa for any other country. But it was the key to the Andamans and Nicobars. The decision was easy: He had hardly any money to afford foreign travel, and home was India anyway.
In 1975, when he surrendered his citizenship, an officer at the American consulate in Chennai put his hand on Rom’s shoulder and asked him gravely, “Are you sure, son?”
Rom was stateless for the year it took Indian authorities to grant him citizenship. Far from feeling unfettered, he felt marooned on the mainland. He vented his frustration by collecting every book on the islands’ history and natural wealth, and learnt the name of every island. Never had anyone until then hankered so much to get to kalapaani.
Soon after his naturalisation papers came through, Rom set off. Ostensibly, he was surveying crocodiles, but he snorkelled in spectacular coral reefs, fished in the open sea, canoed up dense mangroves, and trekked through tall evergreen rainforests, chronicling their unique flora and fauna.
All wasn’t well: Crocodiles were hunted for skins, forests were converted to matchsticks and board, and beaches were mined of sand for the construction of buildings. But Rom was hooked. He would visit the islands a few times every year for the next three decades.
There was plenty of work to do in the islands from coral reefs to canopy, and not enough researchers or conservationists. If the situation was to improve, more infrastructural support was needed. The answer was a field station with support staff.
Rom began raising funds to bring his vision to reality. He built a shack that was to serve as centre of operations and researchers’ accommodation on an acre of land near the present-day Marine National Park in Wandoor, South Andaman.
He bought a 40-foot trawler from Nagapattinam in southern Tamil Nadu, where the Customs auctioned fibreglass boats confiscated from the LTTE. After the bullet holes were plugged, Rom christened it Aka Bea, in memory of a South Andamanese tribe that had gone extinct.
The next challenge was to get the craft to the Andamans. It was risky to sail the 1,200-km stretch of open sea, especially when no one on the team was a professional seafarer or a boat mechanic. The Indian Navy came to the rescue and hauled the boat aboard one of its ships to the Andamans.
Alok Mallick became the base manager, and the rudimentary field station, called the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team, was in business. Any researcher now had a place to stay and transport to get around.
A small group of researchers began documenting species, and studying the impact of development on the islands and its wild denizens. In the early 1990s, the station moved to its current five-acre spread, wedged between mangroves and rainforest.
The base is a hive of research activity: drafting management recommendations on many aspects of island ecology, studying anthropology, and conducting surveys of plants, reptiles, coral reefs. Two dugout canoes, 10 wooden cottages built Burmese style, and well-stocked library are utilised by numerous research and conservation organisations based on the mainland.
In the meantime, Indian authorities relaxed travel restrictions on foreigners visiting the Andamans, but Nicobar remains out of bounds.
“Are you tempted to reclaim your American citizenship?” I asked Rom the other day.
“Are you kidding?”