We had taken a local ferry from Chatham Jetty in Port Blair and reached the huge island just across… this was Bamboo Flat. The island seemed like a sleepy village where even shop shutters were opened when the owner saw a customer walking with some resolute intent to buy. Our island visit began in a rather interesting note. We went to a bus stationed near the island jetty and thought we might ask the driver about the island.
‘Hullo driver ji.’ There was absolutely no response to greetings. The driver, in fact, looked the other way. A couple of local passengers sitting inside sniggered but said nothing.
‘Will this bus go to Mount Harriet?’ I persisted, as I already knew that the place I mentioned could be seen only by coming to this island.
‘No,’ came the sullen monosyllabic answer.
‘Does this bus go somewhere?’ I asked.
The driver was by now quite attentive in a belligerent sort of way and said, ‘This bus doesn’t go anywhere. It just remains here.’ He then waved his hands towards the few passengers sitting meekly and continued, ‘They are not going anywhere. They enjoy sitting inside a bus.’ Saying this he again went back to his avoid-any-queries stance.
I thought it was better to ask someone else and asked a man beside me who appeared to be simply waiting there. He had heard what I was asking the driver and simply said, ‘You can take a taxi from here to Mount Harriet.’
‘Ok,’ I thanked him and asked, ‘How much would he charge?’
‘Well, around 300 or 400 rupees if you take the full taxi.’
We did not have to wait much, nor did we have to walk to the taxi stand because just then a jeep taxi came and stood right next to where we were standing. A few girls got down, paid the driver his fare and that was when I asked, ‘You’ll take us to Mount Harriet?’
‘Sure. It will be 300 for a full taxi.’
‘Ok,’ I said and we got in and sat on the rear seat. ‘How far is it from here?’
‘I’ll take you there and I’ll also wait there for an hour,’ he said, ‘You’ll have to pay for your entry pass though.’
‘That’ll be fine,’ said my wife, and continued, ‘But you’ll have to keep telling us of the interesting things that you are aware of. You can begin by telling us your name.’
‘Mohan,’ he said, ‘My father worked with the forest department here but I like to drive this jeep. This jeep is on hire but still I am able to make enough.’
‘That’s interesting,’ encouraged my wife, ‘It is good to earn your own livelihood.’
We talked of a lot of other things as he drove us through the village, and then through a fishing village nearby. ‘The hilly area will soon start. There is a steep climb and the total time to reach the top will be about an hour.’ The sights were new and strange for us who had come from Delhi. A fishermen’s meeting room which was more like a DTC bus shed, kiosks selling some local drink, males sitting and smoking their bidis, women with their nose hidden under gold jewellery… then there was a place where boatmen were building boats, a church… and I was quite busy clicking pictures. Mohan was decent enough to slow down or even stop when I asked him to, as I focussed my camera to take the best shots.
It was when we had reached almost halfway to Mount Harriet that he stopped and asked us to walk across the road with him. We were puzzled, but did as he said.
‘Do you have a twenty rupee note?’ he asked.
This was getting more intriguing and though my wife gave me a glance that said ‘Be careful now’, she opened her purse and took one note out and handed it over to Mohan.
‘See this lighthouse here?’ Mohan was obviously enjoying himself now and continued, ‘No one will tell you this story. But I know all about it and I will tell you.’
The lighthouse was certainly there on the note and when I looked towards where he was pointing, I nearly choked with excitement, ‘Hey! This is the same lighthouse that is there on the note.’
‘And we’ve never known this fact though we’ve been using this note for all our lives now!’ chipped in my wife, ‘This is incredible.’
‘Yes, incredible indeed,’ I said and examined the lighthouse on the note carefully before comparing it with what was there in front of my eyes, ‘This is making me feel like an explorer now. I’m thrilled.’
Mohan then told us that the spot where we stood was the place where the actual photograph was taken. ‘There is another spot on Mount Harriet where other tourists who are aware of this fact generally go to take snaps,’ he said, ‘but they go to the wrong spot. I know this because my father told me so. He was with the forest department and was there when the photograph was taken.’
We were in the presence of a man whose father had witnessed history being created! This was fascinating!!
The journey from there to the top of Mount Harriet was made talking about this secret spot for the lighthouse photograph that Mohan was aware of and we were told that drivers were not fond of making too many stops for their passengers and so even if they were aware of this fact, they wouldn’t mention it.
At the entrance of the sanctuary at Mount Harriet, the forest official there did ask Mohan, ‘Did you tell them about the picture on the twenty rupee note?’
The official then told us that Mohan was the only driver who was enthusiastic about the spot that we had just been to. This was probably because he thought it was a part of his own family. ‘But he stops there only for tourists who treat him like a friend.’
Well, I said to myself, a sunny smile and a warm attitude is generally enough to take you headlong into the depths of incredible stories. This was one such incredible story that I’d be very unlikely to ever forget.
09 April 2012