The sea was like a sheet of glass, rippled and yet unmoving. The stillness weighed heavy upon us, sitting in the ferry, our red life vests obediently around our necks, waiting for it to move. The offspring, always the most cheerful of the pack, whispered into my ear, “What if the boat collapses into the sea?” Not a chance, I told him, not with this sea, not with this calm.
It stood before us, in the distance barely three kilometers away. Ross Island, the place where the British set up their administrative base, a short ride off the coast of Port Blair. Impassive and mysterious, it was nothing but ruins they told us but ruins worth a visit. We’d reached the jetty a little before sunset. A huge imposing statue of Rajiv Gandhi flinging a garland stood to our right, a sentinel of sorts, to the island. The ferry sped gently towards the island, not a dip or a sway letting on that we were on the water and not on land. I’ve been on roads in Mumbai that were bumpier rides.
It stood before us, in the distance barely three kilometers away. Ross Island, the place where the British set up their administrative base, a short ride off the coast of Port Blair.
Going through the turnstiles when we landed on the island, we spotted a herd of deer, running around, magnificent in their ownership of the abandoned island. Pathways and long abandoned stairways took us up and around the island, where we spotted nature slowly and steadily reclaiming all the abandoned buildings for its own. We passed an abandoned cemetery on our climb up. With my penchant for the macabre, I peeked in, wondering if I should dare step in and read the engravings and dedications on the headstones. It was twilight by now, the sun had sunk silently into the Andaman sea, throwing a last burst of pink and orange across the sky. The night was slowly crawling in from the east. The air was still, heavy, humid. Something shifted in the darkness at the other end of the cemetery as I stood undecided at the broken gate, with the vines creeping all over it. Was it an errant deer that had found solace in the place of the dead, or was it a bird that was checking for last grubs before nightfall? I turned and rejoined the group that had gone on ahead, feeling the weight of unseen eyes on the back of my neck. Further up ahead were the ruins of a Presbyterian church marked ‘Out of Bounds’ with a tape all around its perimeter to deter transgressions, the roof had fallen in, the brick work was exposed but for all its ruin, it remained imposing and holy, the hint of the gloriousness it must have once been still evident at first glance. Peacocks and peahens flitted around amicably with the deer population, both completely unafraid of the humans traipsing around. And yet further, the Chief Commissioner’s house. At the northern end of the island, the circular light house.
It began as a sanatorium and hospital for the ailing British, we learnt, in the fabulous light and sound show on its history. Written and narrated by Gulzar saab, this film has the likes of Oscar winner Resul Pookutty and Manoj Bajpai throwing their might behind it. The history of Ross Island, we learn, is rather chequered. It was named after the British marine surveyor, Daniel Ross but was recently renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island in 2018. Netaji had lived for a bit on the island in during the Japanese occupation. Established as a sanatorium by Archibald Blair in 1789–92, the island soon became the administrative headquarters of the British for the islands, while Port Blair was being set up as a penal colony for the mutineers of 1857. The island was fully self sufficient with water and electricity, a church, a sanatorium, an officer’s club, its own post office, and yes, even its own cemetery.
The history of Ross Island, we learn, is rather chequered. It was named after the British marine surveyor, Daniel Ross but was recently renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island in 2018.
The structures on the island were built with the labour of the prisoners, after which they were shifted to jails on Viper Island nearby. During the Second World War, the British began evacuating the island due to the threat of impending Japanese occupation which then did take place. The Japanese It was after the second World War and reoccupation by the British, and then the Independence of India in 1947 that the island was finally completely abandoned. The island, which has now gone to ruin, has been carefully showcased as a tourist site by the island authorities with this son et lumiere show projected on the still standing bakery from the British era adding weight to the history of the abandoned structures. No civilian residences are now allowed on this island.
As a visitor, one can only marvel at how the island was made into the “Paris of the East” in its heyday, and imagine its glory back then. We returned, tired, but exhilarated by the wonderful slice of history we’d just experienced.