To Calcutta and Beyond: Gap Year Week 23

After Delhi, I went to Calcutta. My mother had her 25th college reunion, and I met my family there for two slow days in the city. Calcutta is still blinking into the modern world: people are still content to stand on street corners and watch small newspaper fires into the night. I spent most of my time there eating, reading, and thinking of the next meal. The house we live in belonged to my late grandparents, and will eventually pass, crumbling and water-stained, to us. Staying there means living, briefly, a fading ancestry; my brother and I are the only children from my father’s side of the family.

But even these small pieces mean so much. Living my life overseas, Calcutta is the one solid connection remaining to my parents’ childhoods. The one landmark I can touch and say, definitively, I came from here. This is the desk where my father dreamt—this is the tree my aunt planted. These are the bonsais my grandmother watered. However ramshackle, a history still rooted.

After the mountains, the sea. Two days later, I was on a flight to the Andamans—as far as I’ll leave India for the next month. With my mother’s college friends and our family, we had planned five days on Havelock Island. Our flight left in the early morning, crossing the endlessly pleated sea of the Bay of Bengal. Then, suddenly, conjured from the ocean, the islands of the Andaman and Nicobar chain, ringed in turquoise and the dark unknown masses of reefs, brilliant green forests: I thought of castaways, pirates, and understood for a moment the magic of a pristine island in the middle of nowhere. This verdance where one expected only blue. I knew I was getting ahead of myself, but I promised that when we flew out, I’d have my camera ready, I would capture this to hold long after.

It came as a shock to discover Port Blair had people in it, shoving and shouting at the gates of the airport. It was also a shock to emerge into the heavy tropical heat after northern India. The ramshackle shops and hilly streets felt like we’d stepped back to an Indian city two decades prior—albeit a heavily whitewashed one. Modi was coming to visit soon, and so every inch of the place was scrubbed down till the sidewalks forgot about dust until the Prime Minister’s plane left the island.

With a few hours till our ferry, we went to see the Cellular Jail. There was a lot to learn there, and I’ve been asked to condense those learnings here for those travel companions that didn’t pay attention for the forty minutes we spent there. Unfortunately or fortunately, the nature of a personal blog means you write whatever the heck you want. They can Wikipedia it.

It would be easy to romanticize it, but really, when we finally reached there, the ferry terminal to go to Havelock was crowded and stinking of instant ramen. More people kept entering in vast, swarming hordes; the ten seats we stretched over at first gradually shrank to five. A boat later, on Havelock, the entrance was a swirling mass of bodies and litter and shacks. Cars clamoring for attention. Tour groups hammering out last names in a beaten mantra. Stray dogs blowing listlessly around like forgotten rags of cloth. A coconut seller hawked large green globes to the tourists disembarking, and hammered them open with steady, sickening thuds.

I began to feel exhausted and strained: we had been up since 5, and I hadn’t slept on the flight, or the ferry, and the travel—now, a week of it—was beginning to weigh on me. After the slow pace of Calcutta, the Andaman Islands (counter-intuitively, and unexpectedly) felt like too many people, too much standing around, too much moving. Too much of everything crowding me. A sudden, selfish urge rose within me to whitewash the world too. Wipe it clean of trash. Of buildings. Of people. Leaving only the things before myself. Before humanity.

In short, I wanted to go diving.

There’s a line from an Indian film (whose title essentially translates to YOLO, and whose content essentially translates to a two-something hour advertisement for Spain tourism) where the Bollywood-star diving instructor talks about diving to her Bollywood-star student. (No points if you can name it in the comments.) “Diving is… something else. It’s like meditation. Imagine living your whole life like that! Fully alive to each and every moment!” The Bollywood-star student nearly immediately abandons his soulless existence as a banker and falls in love with said instructor; by the end of the movie, they are dancing in happy unison at their wedding, presumably on their way to spend the rest of their lives traipsing reefs around the world with immaculate skin in flattering wetsuits. It’s not a difficult leap to make—not if Katrina Kaif says something like that to you.

I’ve tried repeatedly in various journals and diaries over the years to write about diving. Unfortunately, I still can’t live up to a Bollywood slo-mo sequence, because it’s true: diving is something else. It’s a new way of existence to re-learn, every time you sink beneath the surface.

There’s the obvious change, of course: your body rotates to a horizontal position and your movement, freed from gravity, extends in three dimensions in a waterlogged kind of flight. But also obvious, but less discussed, is how your senses transforms underwater, too. Smell, of course, is out of the question—your nose is vacuumed into a mask. And to dive you have to learn to love, or tolerate, the taste of the dry rasping air. You hear only steady rhythms: your breaths bubbling to the surface in glittering columns, the crackling of shrimp if the reef is healthy, perhaps, a little startlingly, the thunder of a boat engine moving away. The world is otherwise muffled into an odd peace.

Sight, of course, is why you dive in the first place. Coral reefs are utterly unlike anything on the surface. They are colorful and dynamic and vibrant, full of stuff to examine and wonder and remember, no matter where you turn. Over the seven dives we did, we saw fabulous things: massive scorpionfish camouflaged in perfect browns, only incongruous in the sharp ridge of their tail. Octopi inside impossible small crevices, revealing pieces of pale, suckered flesh in sinusoidal undulations. A stingray, buried under the sand, invisible but for the point of its tail, which lay outside, like the forgotten quill of an underwater porcupine. Hundreds of fusiliers and trevally circling with sacred purpose against the surface. When you look closer: the tiny transparent shrimp and nudibranches, alien in their colors. Under one rock, the searching half-meter long antenna of a lobster huddled out of sight.

On one dive the visibility suddenly and unexpectedly crashed to a meter or so, and we fumbled through a cloud of sediment for minutes, unable to make out anything. In the near-blindness a shoal of fish with striking yellow bands suddenly emerged, passing very close to me, one by one, as if they had been birthed out of nothing. We did one night dive, and at one point we turned off our lights and kneeled in the shallows. We waved our hands in an underwater interpretive dance, and where the water shifted, out of the blackness sharp points of bioluminescent plankton blinked at us, like stars that had lost their way home.

Dives are motivated by these fabulous visions, which wash by with such fierce intensity that I remember them in hazy impressions of movement and shapes too diverse to hold well as a fixed image. And yet when I’m actually diving, the most striking sense is touch. In the water, touch is all there is and all there isn’t. When you still yourself, you can feel the water solid around. But you need only breathe for it to shift out of your way.

You spend so much of dives not trying to touch anything. The coral is so breakable and the poisonous spines of sea urchins lurk in hollows. Fish will dart away from you if they come near, and if they don’t, you back-kick frantically, afraid of damaging them somehow. A good diver, swimming over a bed of sand, will leave it behind without a single dusty cloud.

Divorced from physical textures, from a world you can feel and know as something solid, everything slips away but your own body. Or, conversely, everything but your body is brought to sharp existence.

If you can’t touch anything, perhaps you aren’t there at all.

For a dizzying moment, you’re invisible. There’s only everything else, bright and vertiginous. And when you touch your cheek, perhaps, when adjusting your mask, or your hand brushes against your leg, it comes as a surprise that your body still exists.

Of course, as much as it surprised me every time we surfaced, there was a world outside the water. In it, we went down sketchy paths late in the evening, past rickety bridges and abandoned beaches, to go kayaking at night. The bioluminescence sparked where we rippled the water, and the mangroves hovered at the corners of our eyes, the outlines of the trees not quite there—somewhere between dissolution and clarity. The moon was too bright to look at. On another day, we went out fishing, pulling up a sleek black-tipped reef shark that writhed on the boat floor, its skin like gray fabric, stained red at the corner of its mouth where the hook had caught it. Passing by us, the islands were gloriously uninhabited, uninhibitedly forested.

In the evenings, our group congregated outside someone’s room with loud, laughing conversation. There were nine of us in all—my family of four, two couples, and a friend from Singapore, all of whom (with the obvious exception of my brother and I) had attended the same college in Calcutta. Because there were no other children to cloister us off with, my brother and I were permitted in. My parents’ friends are (thankfully) interesting people, if they’ll pardon the compliment, and if they’ll pardon the jibe, youthful despite appearances. I sat on a bed, half-reading, making occasional comments, as they teased and debated and argued with each other with a still-collegial enthusiasm, and wondered if this is where I’d be in 32 years’ time, surrounded by this boisterous, generous love. I would be so lucky.

I left the Andamans much as I’d arrived—tired, irritated, and sick of travelling: just as we had returned to Port Blair, we got the news our flight was delayed by four-something hours. We had to wander the island—largely shuttered because of Modi’s arrival that evening—for far too long, and wait an interminable period in the airport. In the end, it was too dark as we left to marvel at their aerial displays. No green land or blue sea. The island night had performed a final vanishing magic.

Please forgive the lack of images: I’m away from reliable network and uploading requires more bandwidth than I currently possess.

2 thoughts on “To Calcutta and Beyond: Gap Year Week 23”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.