"Ah! What pleasant visions haunt me
As I gaze upon the sea!
All the old romantic legends,
All my dreams come back to me."
H.W. Longfellow - The Secrets of the Sea.
Late one February afternoon, the M.V. Tipu Sultan steadily put out to sea from the Cochin Harbour. The land gradually receded before our eyes even as the small fishing boats raced back with their day's catch, the gulls soaring and darting noisily above them, laying claim to their share of the fishermen's labour. The Chinese fishing nets, those marvels of fishing in coastal waters, hoved along and passed us. An occasional dolphin gambolled out of the sea, shimmering in the sun. The land soon became a distant horizon that would finally disappear behind the curving earth. Then there was only the ship and the sea.
Not quite. The attempt of the blue-back waters of the Arabian Sea to hide it's denizens was ever so often frustrated as the rebellious flying fish broke out on their short, swift flights. True, they were swallowed again by the sea but they had made their point: We were not the only ones on those waters. Only near the island of Minicoy did something else manifest itself from the deep. A fin was seen coming rapidly towards the ship. Closer scrutiny revealed it to be a hammerhead swimming determinedly right up to the ship. It examined the entire starboard side and then, as if deciding with disdain that it would have no truck with this ship, disappeared into the wake of the Tipu Sultan which went on, to it's first destination.
The island of Minicoy was sighted after about twenty hours of sailing. When the ship dropped anchor the land was still far off, with the silhouette of it's lighthouse standing sentinel-like over its mysterious domain, barely visible in the haze. The small, motorised boats with helmsmen expertly manoeuvring among the coral reefs, came up one after the other to the disembarkation doors of the hold. Locals and visitors piled into these ferries and were quickly whisked off to their homes or to strange, enchanting lands.
As the boats pushed on this way and that, safely avoiding the reefs, the island became clearer and clearer. The blue-back waters of the deep sea had melted into sky blue which soon blended into aquamarine and finally the pure green of the lagoon. Beyond, the near-white coral sands beckoned us to cross them and reach the verdant, swaying palms of the coral island. The water was at least twenty feet deep, but so clear that we could actually tell the forms of the corals and anemones swaying as they fed on the sea bed. Scooping out some water in one's hand revealed it to be as clear and transparent as any self-respecting water should be. Then whence the colour?
To quote Rachel Carson, "The sea is blue because the sunlight is reflected back to our eyes from the water molecules or from very minute particles suspended in the sea. In the journey of the light rays into deep water all the red rays and most of the yellow rays of the spectrum have been absorbed, so when the light returns to our eyes, it is chiefly the cool blue rays that we see." However, in coral lagoons, the rays of the sun penetrate right to the sea bed, thanks to the clear waters. So the light yellow of the sands is also reflected back and as they mix with the blue, there before you are the turquoise waters!
In less than an hour the boats were tied up along a small jetty and we took our first steps into Minicoy. Even as we marvelled at the crisp white sand under our feet and the green of the palms above, an awesome rattling sound shook us and we looked around, aghast, for its source. It was only the tiller, a sort of miniature tractor, which when attached to cart serves as transport for people and goods of all islands. So we rattled off in these for a "welcome drink". No, it's not like those advertised five-star hotels in Goa.
FROM THE COCONUT back into the tiller to rumble through the winding ways lined with palms, pines, breadfruit and casuarina to jolt to a halt at the lighthouse. The Minicoy lighthouse is the tallest in the islands, standing at 48.13 metres. high. View the palms from above and feel superior. These tops are like a carpet before you, only occasionally broken by a clearing for a house, or by the single street which runs the length of the island. Big boards outside have already precluded you from taking pictures. When present-day satellites can photograph the number plate on an automobile, the "Photography Strictly Prohibited" notice seems anachronistic. So we descended, enthralled with the sight, but unhappy that we could not share it with friends back home.
After the lighthouse, the tiller drove us rough-shod to the beach. Only babies could swim here: the water is uniformly knee-deep. A walk along the shore revealed colonies of hermit crabs adapting themselves to shells of their choice depending on their sizes. The hermit is a unique crab it has no shell of its own, so it uses the discarded ones of various snails to protect its body, while its legs hang out from the opening as it drags itself and its protection over the sands. Moving much more speedily over the sands is the ghost crab. This is a more characteristic crab, whose colour blends finely with its environment. If threatened, it disappears swiftly into its hole in the sand.
Wading near the reef, a sharp call from the shore of "Shark! Shark!" brought everyone out. A baby shark had been caught and was being held up by the guide for exhibition. Sharks don't usually enter the waters of the lagoons as they are too shallow for them. But apparently sharks also make mistakes.
BACK ON THE TILLER, the only piece of human contrivance which spoils the still of the islands, we were taken to the tourist hut for a sampling of the other industry of the islanders. The first was the coconut, now a feast of tuna fish. Later the tiller precariously manoeuvred its exhaust-belching way through the palm trees and coughed out into a village. A marriage was to take place there the next day and in front of a colourfully painted community house, the women were busy preparing food in large pots on open fires.
An exhibit in Minicoy is a typical bridal house. Each room is decorated traditionally and awaits the newly-married couple. The matriarchal system prevails here (as also in the other islands), with the man going to live in the woman's house, bringing a dowry with him!
The jobs here range from the traditional tuna fishing and coconut cropping to employment in government offices. The islanders are on the Scheduled Tribe list and hence get a lot of preferential treatment for education and government jobs on the mainland, to where many have now moved. However, a mainlander is restricted from settling in these islands, except of course, if there is a marital bond. Foreign tourists are restricted entry except on specific inhabited islands like Bangaram. The culture, traditions and most important, the islands themselves are so fragile that no amount of restrictions for preserving them could be enough. No one is allowed anywhere here without an authorised guide. The older islanders do not take too happily to visitors, although tourism does help the economy. I experienced this personally when I ambled along alone with my camera on a village street in Kavaratti. I reached a mosque and as I was photographing it, an old man accompanied by some children instructed me to go back to the tourist hut and followed me until I reached there.
After spending a night on the ship, we were ready for the next island in the morning. The sun rose from the Arabian Sea, pushing its way inexorably through a cloud whose attempts to obstruct it with its ephemeral existence were doomed. The sun was well up when we approached Kalpeni. Once more the boatman wove through the markers which indicate the reefs. Atop each marker, statue-like was a solitary grey heron, one of the few birds seen around the islands. It is ironic that these volcanic islands which owe their lush vegetation to the fertility provided once by the droppings of sea birds, should now be so bereft of bird life. Apparently, man and bird could not co-exist here.