Anuradha Rao- A woman living on an island.

I am always excited about an adventure. The sheer thrill of it, makes my heart race. Another thing that I love is history, and old places. The mystery, the stories and visiting the places where the stories unravelled is by far my favourite thing. On the second day of my trip to Andaman I was going to get a dose of both these things. Firstly the 15 mins speed boat ride and secondly visiting Ross Island. I was prepared for this. Though there was a third thing that happened to me on that Island- Anuradha Rao.  She sort of raced everyone to reach the top spot of my “The most awesome people I know” list. She gave me an experience that will remain with me for a very long time.

Speed boat from Port Blair to Ross Island
To reach Ross Island you have to take a boat ride from Port Blair. I chose to take the speed boat. I had never done it before. I had just seen some extremely sexy  women in some action films do it. My boat ride consisted of three stages; ‘I am so sexy’, ‘I am going to die’ and then ‘Shit! i want to do it again.’ The “Im so sexy” stage lasted for the first five minutes when the boat was  just about gaining momentum. As soon as the boat speeded up and we reached right in the middle of the ocean I was kind of sure I was going to die. I had a life jacket on and a life guard behind me but that didnt really seem to help. I closed my eyes and prayed. “God! not yet Im still a virgin.” I opened my eyes instantly,”You are going to die and this is what you have to say.” I decided there was nothing in my control anyway so I should just bloody well enjoy it. So with a mixture of fear,excitement and virginity I started yelling on top of my voice. Yelling, let go of my fear and thats when I had an absolute blast and reached the third stage of “I have to do it again”  and also Ross Island.
Ross Island
Like a good tourist I had researched a bit about Ross Island and had also seen some great pictures. Ross Island was an administrative headquarters of the British when they came here some time in 1858. The place was not just a quarter it was a posh resort. It had everything  swimming pools, tennis courts, churches, bakeries, great bungalows, a mess,a beach, cemetery,etc. It was like a small town with everything one would want to live right in the middle of the sea. The pictures of the bungalows showed an amazing collections of artefacts,paintings,vases,and statutes. There were no fans then so the British had people hired as human-fans for themselves. Basically it was a place where the Britishers chilled after a hard day of giving a hard time to Indian freedom fighters who were held in  the prison at the Cellular Jail(Kaala Pani) in Port Blair. With this little research I was hopeful of seeing the magnificence of the British living.
As I entered the Island there was a ticket counter. At the ticket counter there was a small board saying Private Guide and a number. My father had told me that he had read about a guide named Anuradha Rao in a newspaper and that it would be worthwhile to have her around. Im always skeptical of the guides in India. Though I just called the number anyway. I started dailing the number,there was a weirdly dressed woman standing beside me. She wore a man shirt which she had cut the sleeves of,a man pant which she had folded on her ankles and she held a huge bag that smelled of bread.  As I looked at her, my phone to Anuradha got through, the woman beside me said “Hello” and I knew it was Anuradha. I immediately thought of this being a big mistake.As we finished ticket formalities, Anuradha approached us with a deer right behind her.” Namaste, mein aaj aapki guide hun. Mein aapko har jaankari hindi mein dungi. Mujhe English aati hain par hindi hamari rashtra bhasha hain, toh usse bolne mein kya sharam. Jab aap Paris jaate hain kya vahan ke log french mein hi baat nahi karte, toh hum kyun na hindi mein bolen. Aap ko koi aitraaz toh nahi?” She asked us smiling, showing of her guthka stained red teeth. We shook our head. She spoke to us in Hindi throughout the one and half hours.
Anuradha Rao with her blind deer

She started giving us information about Ross Island’s history, though I was completely distracted with the image of her and her stroking that beautiful deer. She realised that,”She (the deer) is blind from both eyes. Her only sense of direction comes from my voice. She follows my voice. I have trained her that way. She has an amazing sense of smell. With animals its really easy to establish trust, once you establish the bond it remains the same. Its not as difficult as humans.” I smiled I kind of realised this could turn out to be something good. She continued with her information.”I am the 4th generation of this island. I was born and raised here. My parents, grand parents worked for the British. If you expect to see anything from that period here ,you are mistaken. There is nothing of that time left on this island. The Britishers took a lot of it when they left,also there was an earthquake in 1941 which destroyed a lot of things. What is left here today are just some really old trees and remains of the old structures. Also the Indian government did nothing to preserve these structures.” Then she suddenly drifted from the subject.” The world’s most dangerous thing is not nature or animals but us,humans. We are self-destructive and have no respect for the universe we live in.” She suddenly started touching her body everywhere,like looking for something. “Chote, where are you roaming? Come out?” My father looked at me as if Anuradha was nuts. I laughed. “There you are, Chote. Sir meet Chote, he was born a week back. I keep him with myself because the owls will snatch him. He is very young and slow.” It was a cute little squirrel. She took out a small injection filled with milk and fed him. “Hamashe bhooka rahate hain tu, Chote.”
Chote drinking his milk
What was and what remains
“The Britishers gave us a lot of trouble but they were really intelligent people. Andaman will never have a water problem. The Britishers have dug ground water reserves all over the place. They were paranoid about the water. The greatest number of deaths on the islands happened because of water-borne diseases. This bit of information was given to the authorities by me. There is a cemetery a little ahead. I asked the Government to dig it up so that we can find something. They would not listen. So one night I dug up a little with the help of a fisherman. I got some samples and gave it to the defence people to experiment on. Thats when they found out about the deaths due to water borne diseases. Our government needs to be woken up every now and then.” Suddenly she yelled some 10 names loudly. “Its lunch time.” she said looking at us. In 10 mins we were surrounded by two peacocks,a peahen, innumerable kinds of birds, some more deers,squirels and cocks. The sight was unbelievable.It was like I was shooting for Animal Planet. My jaw dropped down some centimetres. She gave me some bread. “It is without any yeast. Breads with yeast kill them. So many tourists have killed my deers like that.” I took some time to sink it in and started feeding them.
The youngest death ever recorded on the Island due to jaundice.The epitaph is worth zooming into.Beautiful words… 🙂
All of them at lunch!
A walk  in the wild,with the wild!
After that for a good half an hour the animals followed us everywhere. I was walking with a peacock on one side and a deer on the other. ” You guys go ahead and see the the Pedar beach. It is down there. The beach was destroyed by the Tsunami. A lot of  film shootings used to happen here. The view is just beautiful. ” We went down and she was right. The view was breathtaking. We spend a few minutes and went up. By the time we came up all the animals and birds had surrounded Anuradha. She sat there eating the same bread she was feeding them. It was like watching a film. It was much more beautiful than the Pedar beach. They sat there like friends chatting and enjoying their lunch. That image will never leave me.
Pedar beach

Time seemed to go too fast. As our last spot we sat on the sea coast of Ross island looking towards the Cellular Jail tower in Port Blair. I asked Anuradha her story. “I was born here with limited resources. My dad didnt do much for me and my siblings. We called him Hitler. We all had to make our own lives. My father died really early. My mother just recently a few months back. I lost all my siblings and their families in the Tsunami. I was saved because I was in the sea on a ship, with the defence people. I knew something was going to happen a month before. My animals told me, they always have an instinct about these things you know. I tried to warn people but they called me mad. A lot of people thought I was mad before the Tsunami now they respect what I have to say  a little bit. The defence people gave me a small room on the island. I live there alone with my animals for company. They are my family. No civilian is allowed to stay on this island but they let me. If not for me these animals would have been either dead,caged or hunted. I have to protect them, just like they protect me. They are all that I have got, anyway.”

As it was time to say goodbye. I hugged Anuradha. She took some time but then patted on my back.” God bless you madam.” She turned around and her blind deer followed her. Finding their way back, to the place which they both call “home”.  Anuradha touched my heart in a million ways. She will be etched in my memory forever.
With Anuradha and the deer.
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Salim

Salim could sit for hours reading  his favourite magazine, ” The Outlook Traveler”. He would pick  it up from a raddiwala  in his slum for 20 rupees every once in a while. It was after reading this magazine that Salim had dreamt of living in Ladakh and studying in a school there. He hated his house and his circumstances. He thought about running away from home every night before sleeping. When he got up in the morning he would see his fragile and sick Abu  reading the Quran and he would feel guilty of thinking of running away, leaving his sick father alone. Salim stopped reading the Quran some years ago. His father a devout Muslim would read the Quran 5 times a day. Salim didn’t believe in God. He had seen enough in his life to become an atheist. The more his father insisted on believing in Allah the more Salim rebelled. Abu told him that Allah was looking after them every second of their lives. Salim would tell Abu to look  in the mirror, at how sick Allah had made him. He showed Abu  his mother’s picture who died when Salim was just 7 years old.  
Salim really didn’t lose faith in Allah when he lost his mother though. He was just seven then, oblivious to life’s basic questions. Like, is there a God? He was born in a slum in which most of the  population was Hindu. As a kid  his younger brother Shohaib ,him, and his friends would play near a small Ganesh temple in the slum. His best friend Rishi was a Hindu. Rishi and him were inseperable as kids. They would do everything together. The Ganesh temple was their place of meeting every evening. It was here that they had shared their dreams and crushes. Rishi insisted that every morning before they went to school they should go to the temple and do a Namaskar. Salim never objected.Salim prayed to Allah and Rishi prayed to Ganpati. Salim and his brother celebrated the Ganesh festival with all his Hindu friends with the same enthusiasm as Id. This particular spot in the slum was Salim’s place of peace and joy. Till that fateful day, when everything changed.
Salim was 16 years old and Shohaib just 14. They had got Shohaib’s 10 th standard result and Shohaib had passed with decent marks. Shohaib told Salim to carry on home and that  he had to meet some of his friends near the temple. Salim went home. As soon as Salim reached home he told Abu about his brother’s result. Abu’s eyes were moist and he asked Salim to go and get Shohaib home. He changed, showered and ran to Rishi’s house. On his way, there was total commotion and chaos in the slum. People were running everywhere . He reached Rishi’s house. Rishi was sitting on his chair looking petrified. ” What happened Rishi? Are you alright?” Salim shook him as he spoke. “Where is Shohaib, Salim? You need to run, they will kill you! We need to get him! ” There was a riot in the city and it was spreading fast. They rushed to the temple. Rishi’s parents tried their best to stop him, but he told them he couldn’t leave his friend alone. On the way to the temple they saw horrible things. Salim threw his topi and his taveez as he ran. Suddenly aware he was a Muslim for the first time in 16years. By the time they reached the temple Shohaib was lying there unconscious, almost beaten to death. They rushed him to the hospital. That night too Salim didn’t lose faith in Allah. Some of his Muslim and Hindu  friends were dead, and he had seen his brother being beat up just because he was a Muslim. But Salim was still a believer, he had not lost  faith.
Salim lost his faith after his brother disappeared a year, after the riot. Shohaib left Salim and his father a letter telling them he was leaving to follow Allah’s path, to spread the word of Allah, to take revenge. Salim never saw Shohaib again. He didnt even have a clue that his younger brother was capable of doing such a thing. Abu couldnt take the shock, and he had an massive heart attack. Abu was rushed to the hospital and operated. He survived. Though something inside Salim died. His faith, and his love for the place that got him peace, the Ganesh temple. After his father’s attack he never went there. It had just become a reminder of his religion and his unconscious brother ,not his happy childhood.
His father’s illness had changed everything for Salim. The medical expenses were rising everyday, they had to sell their big shop in the slum market to make ends meet. Salim lived in a small house with two rooms. One of the rooms was converted into a shop where they would sell vegetables,bread, eggs,milk, and daily utilities. Salim had passed his 12th, but his studies had to stop. They just didnt have the money and he had to run the shop to afford his father’s medicines and their daily bread and butter.
Salim had to grow up well beyond his years too quickly, he didnt’ want to. He couldn’t be a normal 18 year old. After the riot everything had changed in the slum. People weren’t the same any more. After his brother’s disappearance, everyone looked at Salim with suspicion. Some even called him a terrorist’s brother. Salim would retaliate at this at first, but slowly he gave up. He would just be at his shop and take care of his father. During all this there was only one thing in his life that he treasured. It was his friendship with Rishi. Rishi was still the same. He would see Salim through his silences, tears, anger and frustration. 
Rishi and Salim would go every night on a hill near the slum for a smoke. One such night Salim lied down looking at the stars which the city lights made very difficult to see and he started talking. ” I wonder if I am the coward or Shohaib?. He had the guts to run away for something he believes in. I could never do that Rishi. I could never leave Abu and Shohaib alone like that, to follow my belief. I want to live in the mountains. I want to be in Ladakh and study there. There is a place there where they teach  things like how to listen to music, to paint on walls, to listen to silence. I dont want to be in this shit hole. I feel guilty of feeling this way. How can I  want to run away when Abu needs me? Im his only support. I just dont have the courage.” he said puffing some smoke.
“You are joking right.” Rishi said instantly almost shocked that Salim felt this way.” Having guts, is not what Shohaib did Salim. Having courage is not about running away. You say ,he ran away because he believed in something. Following the path of Allah isn’t about killing innocent people.Remember when we were younger we would go to the Ganesh temple and you would pray to Allah, and it never mattered to me.  There is only one God. Allah doesn’t live in a mosque or a temple. He lives in your heart. What happened with Shohaib was wrong. Totally wrong. But still it doesn’t give him the right to kill anyone. Courage is doing the right thing. Even if it means sometimes to not being able to follow your dream. When I see you sitting in that shop and taking care of Abu my heart swells up. Im proud of you Salim. I dont know  of many people who have gone through so much and still been able to keep a sane head on their shoulder.  You will get your chance Salim just keep your head down and have faith.”
Days went by. Salim’s life was a routine. He would wake up, open his shop, run his shop and make sure Abu ate and took his medicines on time. In the night once he had closed the shop Rishi would come by and they would go to the hill. Salim had lost sense of time ,he had accepted this life and he had given up his dream for the sake of his duty and love for his father. 
On one morning, Salim woke up as usual at 7 . He would always wake up to his father’s recital of the Quran. He didn’t hear it, and his father was still asleep. He got up and callled Abu he didnt get a reply. His face was turned towards the wall. Salim turned him around, there was a white liquid coming out of his mouth, Abu wasn’t breathing. He was dead. Salim didn’t react to this for a very long time. There weren’t any tears,and no emotions. When he turned him around a paper had fallen from Abu’s hand. It was a letter in Hindi.
Dear Salim,

When you  find this letter I would be dead. I had to do this Salim. For most of my life I have never been able to be a good father. When your brother left you lost your faith in Allah, while I lost my ability to emote, to feel anything inside. For the last few years now you have been taking care of me. At 16 it was your age to study,to explore, to fall in love. But because of me you became a prisoner in your own house. Living a life you didn’t want to live. All through these years you never let me know that. You never got angry,  frustrated or forgot to give me a dose of my medicine in a day. Surprisingly this made me even more unhappy and guilt ridden. Your strength made me even more aware of my weakness.

I wonder if I have killed your emotions too? I wonder if you are really alive if you dont feel any emotion? If you cant be happy or angry.  I dont remember having a conversation with you, for quite some time now. I never held you or kissed you on your forehead and told you how proud I am of you. I want you to know that I am and that I will be always around.

In the Quran suicide is a sin. Though I am not afraid any more Salim.  My heart breaks everyday to see you sit in that shop. You deserve better. You are a special kid my child. I had to set you free. Take care of yourself! Allah is with you.

Loads of love to you, 

Khuda Hafiz,
Abu.
By the time Salim finished the letter Rishi had reached there. He grabbed the letter from Salim and read it. He sat there quietly next to his friend. “I am  alone now Rishi. I am all alone now.” and he hugged Rishi. Salim cried, Rishi cried. They held each other and they cried for a very long time. The day went by quickly after that. He and Rishi were the only people present during the last rites. Rishi dropped Salim home and asked him if he wanted him to stay. Salim told him not to worry and that he wanted to be alone for a while.
That night Rishi found it very difficult to sleep. He knew this would be the toughest night of Salim’s life. He really was all alone. He did fall asleep late into the night though and when he got up it was already 9. He ran to Salim’s house he just had to check on him. The house door was open. He went in ,there was no sign of Salim. His small suitcase, some clothes and the money in his locker were missing. He sat down on the floor looking around and put his head in his hands. Salim was gone. 
Rishi was shattered, he broke down. His eyes suddenly went towards the wall. There was a small cutting of a scenery in Ladakh on it and it was written,” I will be here.” at the corner of the paper . Suddenly it dawned to him.  Salim was on his way to Ladakh. This was his chance and he had taken it. He smiled for the first time in the last two days. His mind was filled in with thoughts.  Salim had the courage, of the right kind.He told himself. He wasn’t afraid of being alone, of letting go of his home, of finally following his dream and exploring the danger of the unknown. Unlike his brother he didnt follow the path of Allah, but that of his own. Rishi knew that took some real guts, that it was much more difficult.
Rishi took that paper cutting off and started walking towards the Ganesh temple where he and Salim would always go as children. He took off his chappal , joined his hands and prayed. He told Allah to take care of his friend. It started raining outside. 
After a fortnight, in a school in Ladakh there was a new admission.