Of Bonding & Breaking Up: Sailing From Kochi To Lakshadweep

Watching the last smear of land fall away as we sail across the Arabian Sea on our journey from Kochi to Lakshadweep
The ship glides through the gentle waves in the sea
The ship glides through the gentle waves in the seaShutterstock

It's always the sky that tells me the sea is near. The hills and arching trees that slice up my everyday sky have fallen away and the blue is whiter, hotter, flatter over Kochi harbour. I am about to step off the subcontinent to board a ship to Lakshadweep, the longest sea journey I have ever ventured on.

It is a battered old tub. Not The Bounty, perhaps, but certainly not the QE2. Most of us board in pairs. Two from Mumbai, two from Pune, two from Calcutta, two from the magazine. The caste system on board separates us into cabin passengers and local passengers. Those who are here to cruise and those who just want to get from dweep to dweep.

The largest of the cruisers is a teeming collective organism, the school excursion group. A many-limbed, jostling, shoving, queue-jumping, littering body. It speaks Erode Tamil, well over the speed limit, every sentence starting with Ay and ending with Da. It is armed with cellphones, walkmans, cameras, beeping watches. A trio of teachers weaves unharmed through it like clown fish through anemone.

On the upper deck, I edge around that organism to find a good spot at the rail. In the white afternoon haze, the ship glides past the enormous navy vessels in the harbour, the red-tiled roofs of Mattanchery, the fishermen's huts. Suddenly, we are out of the waterway and on the open sea. The haze is gone, and the vastness of the water is like a chill finger on the back of my neck. I am a lover of earth and mud and trees, and I strain my eyes to watch the last smear of land fall away. The dolphins accompany us for a while, and sometimes a boat with a thin blue crescent of a sail, and then we are alone with the sea and sky.

'How Long Are We Going To Stare At The Water?'

Already I'm counting the hours till landfall the next morning. Someone once told me they keep you really busy on a cruise, so you don't have time to get bored (or frightened) of the ocean, but I don't see anyone with tea trays. No blackboard with a bingo schedule on it. No magazine rack. Students are already asking, "How long are we going to stare at the water?" But this will be my world till next Tuesday. So I start watching everyone else.

Sharp at 4.30 pm, the school group storms the ice cream kiosk, and the other cabin passengers follow more sedately. There is much thoughtful slurping and sidelong glancing at co-passengers. After an hour, someone signals that the show is about to begin. The matrons and their safari-suited husbands heave themselves out of plastic chairs and troop to the rail to watch the sunset. One passenger has his video camera out, his wife holding the battery up behind him. They all click. It's over in minutes, the burnished path to the sun, the dull red, and finally, just a cloud plume over a mauve sea.

The water is slate grey at first, then as the sun rises, it separates the dark blue of the open sea from the lace-edged aquamarine of the lagoon
The water is slate grey at first, then as the sun rises, it separates the dark blue of the open sea from the lace-edged aquamarine of the lagoon

For the next half hour, Venus rules the black sky. Much later, I find the Hunter, and blue, winking Sirius. Now I feel the speed of the boat. It cuts a foamy gash through the water. I try to ignore the heaving and the pounding of the sea, lest it set up a sympathetic heaving in my innards. But watching the sea doesn't make me sick. That happens when I go down the steps.

Perhaps this is how it would be to go under water, this plunge from the homogeneous hum of the upper deck to the clinking of spoons on steel trays. We feed, we circle, we swerve, we between-reach to grab a pappadam from the buffet table. Perhaps the fittest eat the most, but the unfit seem to survive as well, and there is plenty of food.

In the morning we are already anchored near Kalpeni. The water is slate grey at first, then as the sun rises, it separates the dark blue of the open sea from the lace-edged aquamarine of the lagoon. We are crammed into tugboats that will take us to land, and from those sticky collisions of hands and eyes and smiles, friends are made. Over the next few days, snorkelling gear and glass-bottom boats will reveal a small part of what lies beneath the waves we've been riding.

Surrounding the islands is the coral that the sea puts together
Surrounding the islands is the coral that the sea puts together

Sickle-Shaped Islands

The islands of Lakshadweep are sickle-shaped. The sea perpetually scoops them out on one side and pads them up on the other, while the twisted vegetation struggles for a hold. Surrounding the islands is the coral that the sea puts together, grain by grain, and then teases apart in its endless play, until the sand is as soft as a maalaadu breaking in the mouth. Even on the islands, it's all about the ocean. The land is barely there. It doesn't have the marks of mainland beaches. No T-shirt stalls, no peanut sellers. The men are all sailors, the women run things on land and watch for the boats.

I can't swim or get the hang of the snorkelling tube, so I walk through the shallow waters, stumbling on rocks, occasionally putting my goggled eyes to the glassy surface. There are zebra fish, corals that look like brains, others that are sharp fingers scraping my ankles, stones full of holes, green slime, a flaccid sea cucumber.

The other tourists have all surrendered to the water, most with improvised swimwear, dhotis tucked between the legs, shorts, tank tops and skirts. Some of the men bathe as if in the Ganga, scrubbing their clothes while they're at it. Most of the women have entered fully clothed, with all their jewellery on. Where language is a barrier, there are one-word greetings. One swimmer has been watching me stagger through the water in my jeans and splashes me till I have salt in my mouth and sun-dazzled eyes. "Are you having fun?" she demands.

Ever Changing Sea

I am, actually, but mostly I'm amazed. The sea is never as I remember it from last time. It was frothy when I waded in at Marina Beach. It was steel grey in the North Atlantic, postcard blue in Miami, deep placid blue in the Mediterranean.

Snorkelling to see what likes beneath the blue waters
Snorkelling to see what likes beneath the blue watersAryan Ram/Unsplash

It's our second day on the beach. In the morning, there is an impromptu dance on the sand, till the organisers make us knock it off and get into the glass-bottom boats. After lunch, there is a lively hen party, while the men listen to the radio broadcast of the India-Australia match with serious faces and sudden shouts. I sit on the ground, intending to observe rather than participate. But one of the Mumbaites swivels round. "Why are you sitting so quietly?" Oh well, I can't get in the water and stay dry at the same time. I join the circle, ask questions, answer theirs. "You will write about us in your story, won't you?" they ask.

Absolutely. It's not just about the ocean, is it? It's about what happens to human beings when they get drenched. The ice broke long ago. The women are teasing one another. They are all seasoned travellers, used to bonding and breaking up. After all, says Protima from Pune, we're all in the same boat. Even the huge school group is resolving itself into individuals. The boy who got lost (and found), Hari, the other Hari, the polite one who surrenders his hard-won chair to Miss Anand, who has a birthday coming up, a boy called Window Seat, the boy who keeps going back for more rice and the four schoolgirls, their hair curling wildly as it dries in the wind. Two inseparable six-year-olds are always at the water's edge. For hours, they poke sticks into the wet sand and watch the holes fill up again.

To The Lighthouse

The schoolteacher, Tulasi, and I are among the first at the top and we marvel at the ribbons of colour from the land to the open sea. What do we mean by sea blue, she says. Look at all those blues. One of the ladies from Bombay joins us, and her broad smile stretches still further.

As the tugboat roars to the ship in the late afternoon, the sun shatters in white-hot fragments on the water. Our last ocean sunset is a five-star one, the clouds arranged just so, with rays shooting upwards, as in posters with Bible quotations on them.

The largest of the cruisers is a teeming collective organism, the school excursion group
The largest of the cruisers is a teeming collective organism, the school excursion group

Only a short morning at sea before we reach Kochi. The rising sun has rusted the water on one side of the ship. On deck, there is a flurry of exchanged email addresses, group photographs.

We can't see land yet, but the ocean is dotted with white boats. And here's our reception line of dolphins.

The Information

Lakshadweep Tourism is called the Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS). They run regular cruise-packages to the islands from Kochi. Kalpeni, Kavaratti, and Minicoy are open for domestic tourists only and Kadmat, Agatti and Bangaram are open for both domestic and international tourists.

The islands can be visited by air or by taking a ship from Kochi. Agatti is Lakshadweep's only airport, and is connected to Kochi International Airport six days a week. Four passenger ships -- MV Tippu Sultan, MV Bharat Seema, MV Amindivi and MV Minicoy -- operate between Kochi and Lakshadweep. The passage takes 14 to 20 hours. The ships offer different classes of accommodation and have a cafeteria and snack bars, an entertainment lounge, and video shows. A doctor is available on call on board these ships.

Independent travellers need permits to visit the islands (available at the Sports office on Indira Gandhi Road, Willingdon Island, Kochi. Ph: 0484-668387 laksports@vsnl.net, as well as through travel agents).

Points To Note

The tourism infrastructure is basic on the islands of Kalpeni, Kavaratti and Minicoy. There are bathing huts and snorkelling and scuba gear (some included in the tour cost). If you are interested in learning about marine fauna (which is stunning in variety here), bring your own guidebook -- staff on the islands did little more than point out fish and coral. There are no postcards in sight, and few explanatory boards. Activities on the islands include snorkelling, scuba diving, glass-bottom boats, lighthouse visits.

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