By Sajan Gopalan
It will be with mixed feelings that I will be ending my three year sojourn in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Shortly I will be going back to Thiruvananthapuram Doordarshan. That is one advantage of difficult station postings in government service. After the required tenure you will be given a choice posting. Three years had been a long time and I ache to get back.
But looking back this had been a very rewarding experience. It is not that I have asked specifically for this posting. It was just a routine transfer. I was in the midst of one of the most ambitious projects I have ever undertaken in Doordarshan: Green Kerala express, the first ever social reality show in Indian Television. After that I felt that it was a well earned break.
And what a wonderful experience it turned out be. Far off from Indian mainland. Far off from mainstream society, politics and media. Far off from memory. Even journalist friends ask me whether you need a visa to come here. This used to be the ‘ kalapani’ where great freedom fighters were incarcerated. There was never a point in time when these islands were part of Indian history unless otherwise the British wanted a penal settlement to dumb their political rivals. It was just an accident in history.
At one point of time there were people here from almost half of Indian districts. From almost all the states. People here fondly call it the ‘mini India.’ Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Ranchi and many others who shared a landscape and a destiny with the original inhabitants like Jarawas, Onges, Sentinels, Great Andamanese, Shompens and the Nicobarese who inhabited these islands for the last many millennia. An interesting mix of cultures, languages, lifestyles and routines. I could easily feel at home. And what a beautiful canvas of bright colours that nature has kept in store. And the beauty of the unpredictability of weather.
I will be missing all this when I go back.
But in the beginning we were a little skeptical in making a total shift of the family.
“Father, do you know what Ruskin Bond has said about staying in an island?” My son Abu asked: “An island may sound romantic, but go and live in one, you will be bored in a week.”
Ruskin Bond is the chronicler of mountains. What does he know about sea and beaches? We tried to cheer up ourselves. And while scanning through the atlas and wondering at this unfamiliar landscape, we were amazed to find that there are 572 islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. Islands, islets and rocks to be precise. One day per island and by that time the tenure will be over, or so we thought.
And we just dived into this new experience of landscapes, friendships and travels. We have travelled to almost all the 39 inhabited islands and other places of pristine beauty and rich biodiversity. We travelled in almost all modes of travel from dinghies to big ships. We mixed with all types of people and ate all types of foods. We walked into terrains where people are destined to live far off from all modern amenities. We heard their music, joined their dances and tasted their drinks. We made a lot of friends and that made all the difference.
Ours is a land without crime, islanders are proud to pronounce. It is a peaceful place, one former chief secretary told me. ‘Boringly peaceful’ he quipped.
Island life is determined by what can be defined as ‘boat time, ’says Dr. Francis Xavier. By the time you reach the jetty the last boat has departed. Or the sea is turbulent and the schedule is cancelled. You have nothing else to do other than wait for the next boat. There is no meaning in hurrying. Learn to wait. This mindset is almost all pervading.
So the whole experience was unique in its own way.
Professionally I am not very happy about whatever small steps I could take in Doordarshan. But it was here that I learned about the importance of being with the public service broadcaster. Doordarshan is the only television producing facility which operates in these distant islands. Mainstream satellite channels and mainland media will develop an interest only when there is a tsunami or a case with the Jarawas. If Doordarshan were also not here, there is no facility which can link up all the remote inhabited islands. No one to tell them basic things like the ship timings or alert them about impending natural calamities. Only system which can be effectively tapped for educating people on new systems of farming, improved health systems and telling them about history of their own people.
It is a matter of debate how effectively this is being done. I have no tall claims. But we could make a strong foundation. There is so much to be done on recruiting personnel and upgrading infrastructure. We urgently need a Regional News Unit. We need to increase transmission timings and start educational broadcasts. We need to have more interactive programmes with open windows through which the common wo/man can speak to those in charge. Our initiatives on the first ever inter island quiz, music reality show, historical debates etc got good appreciation. We could do some good documentaries on Barren island, biodiversity, Baratang and other tourist destinations. We could redesign Dweep Darpan programme with inputs from far off islands. This has been a major channel of communication between administration and the people. We have a well knit relationship with the defence establishment. We are well coordinated with the disaster management cell and were the first to reach the spot when there was a major alarm last year. Our farm based programmes are mostly field based and well appreciated. We have specially targeted programmes for children and women. We have commenced the live telecast of Independence day and Republic day parades. We have initiated the national telecast of the Island Tourism festival through DD Bharati and live on all other days in the local channel.
But this is not sufficient and we know that. Only thing that I can assure you is that Prasar Bharti is keenly working on the up gradation.
But the whole experience has opened up for me a new insight on what a public broadcaster ought to do. In one of the wanderings into the far off hillocks I chanced upon a small house of a farmer where I saw a small child sitting and watching the educational programmes in Doordarshan which is the only channel available to them. This sight brought to my mind the oft repeated and soberly clichéd talisman of Mahatma Gandhi wherein he asks us to ponder over the face of the poorest and weakest in the society and just think how your work is going to affect them. I knew then that this small child in the far off hamlet in these distant islands is the person I should be targeting when I plan my programmes. But I could not convince my conscience that I am doing sufficient for her. Sufficient amount of education, information and entertainment. Sounds clichéd? But there are unforgettable truths in clichés which are looked down with contempt because of over familiarity.
But media is not existing in vacuum. The sorry state of local media in small towns of India need deeper analysis. Port Blair can be taken as a case study. This is particularly so since these islands continue to be a Union Territory which has been denied a meaningful democratic process. It is the absence of political participation which has failed to create a melting pot of various cultures and languages into the creation of a meaningful Andamanian identity. But considering the strategic importance attached to this geographic terrain this may be a distant reality. But there are a few youngsters in media like Zubair, Sanjib and Denis who are the hope for the future of serious journalism in these islands.
An array of unforgettable faces flicker in memory while looking back to all those erratic travels. Gopinath Jeem the lonely resident in Trinket Island who is one of the happiest persons I have ever met. Debnath Biswas who refuses to leave his small abode in Rutland island even when a ‘Delhi company’ threatens to displace him by buying all the surrounding land. Rupali Dutta who has to walk ten kilo meters every day to go to school. The Ranchi woman who despite being terminally ill braves the adversities of life through her favourite songs. And many others who teach us the art of survival, facing the tedious struggles of life with a graceful smile. It is from these villagers that we learn about the magic of rustic Indianness.
We can also be proud of the fact that myself and my wife Bindu Sajan were instrumental in bringing a film production unit to Andaman to shoot the film ‘Aakasathinte Niram’ directed by Dr. Biju which was fully shot in the enchanting Neil Island. Bindu was also the Associate Director of the film. It is a pleasant feeling to see that this film has got more than five state, national and International awards and has gone to more than 28 international festivals thus acting as a major vehicle to attract global attraction to this distant landscape.
All those who have studied about these islands have pointed out what they euphemistically call a small island syndrome. Small island geography, small island economy, small island psychology and the like. It will be educative if some academic decides to go deep into this. The geographical alienation and the resultant stagnation of development process has created a shell into which individuals and the society has confined itself. This could be the only major town in India even without a cinema theatre. That means even for entertainment there is no public space. But to compensate this, the town has the largest density of dark Dickensian drinking holes. There is no opportunity for an aspiring singer, writer or orator. Their fate is decided by unseen babus deputed from Delhi.
And to think of it I am also probably one among them. I am also going back. Then how long will these momentary anxieties persist with me? May be after a few months it will linger in some evening get together when I start saying..’while I was in Port Blair..’ Friends unused to this territory will pretend interest for some time for the sake of courtesy.
But I am sure that those very words will sprinkle into my memory those lovely beaches, blue sea and the green canopy.’ Emerald, blue and me’ as they proclaim in their tourism brochure. And I will think about friends who taught me the value of togetherness and for a fraction of a second the face of that small girl in the remote hamlet will flicker in memory. How much has she grown up? Has there been a small change in her life for whatever I have tried to achieve? I may not get any satisfactory answer. And then I will go back to other mundane topics in the evening conversation. Since time is the factor which creates maximum distances all this will be forgotten.
But before that I want to thank all these nice innocent and friendly people of these islands for all the new insights that they have given me. Thanks for all those lovely evenings and lively debates. Thanks for the strolls in the empty beaches. Thanks for sustaining the spirit to survive for three long years which would otherwise have been a solitary journey.