The Haunted Islet and its last Great Guest
The Haunted Islet and its last Great Guest
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts, where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter – the Wild Ass
Stamps O’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.
—Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rub’ydt of Omar Khayyam
A few haunted houses I had seen, but never a haunted islet, an islet that was vibrant with life, love and laughter till a Few decades ago. Solemn hymns and carols emanating from two churches, one Catholic and the other Protestant, merged with the melody spilling out of the nearby dancing hall, and white children raced with squirrels and flitted about with butterflies in a beautifully laid out park and the broad steps leading to the imposing building atop the hillock was continuously trodden by officials, merchants and citizens seeking favour from the lord of the archipelago, the Chief Commissioner for this part of British India – the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Surrounded by the deep blue sea, the tiny hillock consisting of only 80 acres of land, known as Ross Island, was the paradise from which the Commissioner ruled the 293 big and small islands, 8,249 square kilometres in area.
Now the only permanent residents of the deserted Ross island were some deer and peacocks. They stamped over many
who gave orders and those who obeyed them, some good and some evil.
One of the last to die there was indeed a good man, they say, one Mr. A.G. Bird, a senior British administrator to fall into the Japanese hands soon after the archipelago was invaded by the latter in 1942. They tied him to a pillar and rained on him blows, ju jitsu style.
The septuagenarian Mn Gurumoorthy, one of the survivors of the Japanese atrocities who had kindly guided us to the islet (with the permission of the Navy, for it is under their custody), narrated the last moments of Mr. Bird, probably standing on the very spot of the macabre enactment of the occurrence.
‘Were our blows rather hard? Do you wish to drink a little water? a grinning Japanese officer asked him.
‘Yes, please muttered the gasping prisoner.
They brought a bucketful of water and the officer clipped a sword in it. ‘It’s clean now,’ he observed. And suddenly he thrust it into the prisoner’s chest and then chopped off his head.
‘Only the other day I guided Mr. Bird’s daughter and son-in-law here – they came from England to have a glimpse of this site,’ Mr. Gurumoorthy informed us.
Silent trees spread their branches and shoots into the crumbling skeletons of once majestic mansions in a desperate bid to stop them from totally disappearing. A million leaves murmured against the violent gusts of wind trying to dislodge the fragments of the structures from their intricate embrace. Wave after wave pounded the islet from all sides. There was no other sound. Strangely, I never heard any chirping of birds.
Over the scattered blocks of ruins, the graveyard of the proud, several recent visitors had sought their way to immortality by inscribing their own names and occasionally of their con sorts.
This isolated islet had hosted a great Indian leader for
three days during that turbulent period.
On the 29th of December, 1943, the Andamanians were ordered to proceed to the aerodrome. By then the people had learnt to resign to the practice of the new rulers to summon anyone to any place, any time. Only a few of them knew that an illustrious son of India was arriving to celebrate the liberation’-of tnat chunk of the country from the British.
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose emerged from the plane and walked through the people who had been ordered to stand in two rows ‘as though he was inspecting a guard of honour/ Japanese officers marched before and behind him and often flanking him too. He had no opportunity to talk to the Indians. He must have felt uneasy, but that could hardly be an occasion for him to question or violate the protocol.
He was led to Ross Island although by then the administration was being conducted from Port Blair. During his sojourn, he was shown the empty wings of the Cellular Jail while a large number of Indians were rotting in the wings shut off from his sight. ‘Alas! if he had seen persons whose skins were missing from thighs, scrotum, abdomen and chest and who could not wear any apparel; a few who had no flesh on their breeches; a few who had no skin on parts of their bodies, the result of burns by petrol; a few who could not walk straight, a few who had deep knife-cuts all over the fleshy part of their bodies in which salt had been sprinkled. Alas! if he had only seen these with his own eyes!’ laments Mr. Rama Krishna.
The public meeting Netaji addressed was well attended. ‘Masterji’ Kesar Das led a team of his students in singing Bande Mataram. He demonstrated the tune to us on the upper floor of his log cabjn. Almost half a century did not seem to have deprived his voice of its melody.
But the office bearers of the Independence League must meet Netaji, without any Japanese presence! They somehow managed to communicate their request to Netaji to pay a visit to their office. Netaji readily agreed. Indeed, he must have
eagerly looked forward to the opportunity.
But his hosts scheduled his visit for the early hours of the very day of his departure – while he would be on his way to the aerodrome! And to their amazement, his native followers saw the office of the Independence League and the ground around it jam-packed with women and children long before the leader’s arrival. At midnight soldiers had shunted them out of their homes and herded them there.
Netaji came and left, hardly able to talk to anybody and anybody being able to talk to him. Some of the office-bearers could not even reach him through the unmanageable chaos so imaginatively managed by the Japanese.
Hardly had the sound of Netaji’s plane faded when 33 of the elite of the Andamans, doctors, teachers, et al, were rounded up and taken to a lonely place and asked to confess their role as spies for the British. Their inability to confess anything only intensified the perpetration of torture on them. They reached a condition when they could neither move their limbs nor talk. Their captors promptly solved their problem by shooting them dead.
I was going through the incomplete Est of freedom fighters incarcerated in the Cellular Jail, inscribed on tablets. Deportations had begun as an aftermath of the great rebellion of 1857. The rebels must be totally uprooted from the mainland and the Andamans were the ideally inhospitable ground for them to be dumped. These unwanted men could also be used as shields to make inroads into the dangerous interiors. They could be sacrificed to reclaim fresh patches of colony.
The British Indian Government, of course, meant to send shock-waves across the country with orders of deportations into the unknown. If tens of thousands of suspected participants in the Mutiny or its sympathisers were hanged or shot, a few thousand more were despatched beyond the vast sea – where waters were so deep and so unfamiliar that they inspired the spectre of a dark sphere. Thus dark, Kola, assumed a sinister suggestion, literal as well as figurative. To be hurled across the dark waters, Kalapani, was to surely meet with a painful death.
And not even one of the 4,000 Mutineers deported between 1858 and 1860 ever returned to the mainland. Death at one’s native place created its normal reactions, but snatched from his environment, from his own people and deported to Kalapani, the victim only left an eerie vacuum in the minds of his kinsmen. They would never know when he died . . . No communication between the deported and his kinsmen was possible. And the rulers saw to it that the Andamans remained a forbidden zone.
Among the prisoners from the Mutiny were feudal lords like Hatte Singh of Ghens (Sambalpur) who used to attack the East India Company’s regiments from the hilltops of Barihadera, and distinguished scholars like Allama Fazali Hag Khairabadi and Maulana Liakat Ali. Recent efforts to trace their burial spots proved futile.
The British saw to it that the terror of Kalapani produced the desired effect. Even a hapless Maharaja of Puri, Divyasimha Dev, who could very well have been punished at home, was sent to the Andamans in 1878 where he died. This was a warning to the other Indian princes. Maharaja Divyasimha was a safe choice, for he had ceased to rule any State and had ceased to command any force that could create any problem for the rulers.