Lakshadweep – Reminiscences of an outsider
I was working in Lakshadweep and staying with my family there for 5 years. This piece is about the life in the islands and the pleasant things we experienced there. A smooth flowing life of 5 years without any problem for all of us, my children, wife and me.,
Life in the island
In the year 1985, I have first set foot in Kavaratti island of Lakshadweep, along with my friends in connection with our official duty. In January we reached the place, and continued till April. During the stay at Kavaratti, we had visited other islands also, as part of our duty. And it was a pleasant experience to live in such a place among many adversities. After returning to mainland, in our usual place of duty, we went on our ways as per instructions coming from our administrative office. We had to travel throughout Kerala, visit government offices as directed by headquarters office, and prepare audit reports of the offices visited. So we were always on the move halting about 5 to 7 days in a particular place. Towards the end of the year, a Circular letter was received from our office, informing that one post in the Secretariat of Lakshadweep Administration was due to be vacant, and persons interested in the assignment, who are willing to work there for one year in the first instance, may give their application for considering the selection. I was rather interested in that and the old memories of the island lingered in my mind. And my friends were also consulted and all of them were prompting me to go there and work for a year there. All of us knew the limitations in the island and the lack of communication between the island and the mainland, and it may not be easy to return to mainland, if any emergency comes up, to be at home on short notice. Moreover, my daughter had just started going to school in our native place, and I might not be able to leave my family behind. Any how the idea of leaving family at home and going alone to the island was somewhat difficult. Again, I had a discussion on this subject, with one friend of our office who was working in Kavaratti at that time. He has also encouraged me and explained all the facilities available in the island, including the availability of residential quarters at government expense, and educational facilities then available there. At last I have decided to give the application conveying my willingness, after consulting with my family. They were reluctant at first, but agreed eventually to go and live in the island for one year. And I have got the selection and final release to join the island administration.
Thus we started our trip with my wife, daughter and son and the ship journey was a fresh experience for them, as it was their first ever ship travel. We reached Kavaratti in the next morning and some employees of the Secretariat came to receive us at the boat jetty and took us to our temporary resting place, the name of which was Circuit House. Our residential quarter was then under construction and would take some more time to complete construction, so we could stay in the Circuit house till the new building was ready for occupation.
So another chapter of my official life started in the Secretariat of Lakshadweep Administration. It was altogether a different style of functioning, different from what I had been doing in my parent office. Here I was given the charge of the Finance and account department and my function included the looking after of the financial transactions connected with all the departments of the administration. It was a more responsible job and had to concentrate on many things in the office. However, it was a pleasant one, even though some days I had to be in office late at night too. As days were moving, we began to face the real condition of the island life.
The atmosphere in the island was very peaceful. The length of the island was about 5 kilometres and width, an average of one kilometer. All around the island there was only water. Lagoon and the sea. No sound pollution, no air pollution, nothing of the sort. There were no motor vehicles on the road. Only some jeeps and one Car which belonged to the Administration were available in the island. As there is no much distance for travel in the islands, there was no need of any vehicle also. However, people used bicycles sometimes. And the bicycles were also rare on the road. Only at times of urgency they used that. Otherwise, always walking was preferred. It was the main difference which I liked very much compared to the life in mainland, where always vehicles were on the road creating all sorts of pollution of fumes, dust, sound and creating accidents. In the island there was no question of accidents.
Also the people were peace loving and there were no cases of theft, robbery, or any criminal offense. There were no dogs, no crows, not any kind of animals other than cattle which were reared by the islanders for milking purposes and for meat.
The islanders were the followers of Islamic religion, and they lived in harmony according to the teachings of Islam and obeyed the religious rules in perfect unison, without any disobedience to the teachings. Children were sent to Islamic teaching centre to learn Arabic and Quran and so from the younger age onwards, they were brought up with discipline and love for each other and all the people were considered to be members of the same family.
During the early days of our starting the new life there, I could understand that there was no market place to purchase vegetable or fish or meat. But some vegetables were being sold through the Agriculture department, on certain days of the week. There it was not according to our needs, they sold, but according to the limited amount of crops harvested in the farm, and distributed in almost equal shares that approached the farm in certain time of the day. Like that egg was sold in the Animal Husbandry Department, as per production of eggs and was not as per our requirement. Also milk to a limited quantity was being sold there, in the morning hours. If we become late to reach the place, no milk was available, as all the quantity would have been sold to persons present there at the time of their business, usually one hour in the morning. At first, my family could not adjust to that situation, as in the mainland, we never met such scarcity in getting food items and grocery. And for our daily needs of rice, wheat powder, etc, there was a ration shop, which distributed articles as per their availability and standard fixed for each family. Somehow we learnt to live with those minimum things which were available there. And one important thing was there was no scarcity of essential food items even at times of bad climate when ships were not touching the islands. Sufficient quantity of such articles was stored in advance, realizing the need for the scarce months of the year.
Slowly I have tried to learn more about the island and the people. Area of Kavaratti Island is about 3.6 square kilometers and number of people living in the island was about 6000. It was a narrow strip of land about 5 km long and width varied at different places, maximum being 800 meters, and minimum about 50 meters between the sea on the east and lagoon in the west. Islanders lived in the northern part of the island, and the middle portion and southern portions were meant for government offices and people working for the administration and their residential quarters. Full of the area was covered with coconut trees, and there were not many other types of trees there. Other trees were papaya, bread fruit, and one called drumstick tree. The local islander’s main source of income was coconut and fish caught from the sea around them. Coconut were made to copra (dried coconut suitable for extracting oil) and fish was dried in their style and named”MAS”. Copra and Mas were the products of the island which were transported to mainland in private sailing vessels and sold on Kerala coast. After the trade is over, they purchase their necessities for the island life, which included some luxury items also. One major thing of their interest was gold. The women folk were interested in gold, and the family members who visit mainland purchase gold for their female members. So in almost all the houses, gold was available, even if, rice was not available on certain occasions of bad weather, when sailing vessels cannot travel to mainland for purchase of materials for daily consumption.
And another interesting thing which came to my attention was, although fish was the main commodity available in the island, there was no shop to sell fish. We have to go to the lagoon side in the evenings, when fishing boats would be arriving with their catch for the day. Major portion of the catch would be Tuna fish. Many people would be waiting at the shore expecting the arrival of each boat. And when the boat arrives, the people waiting would help the boat crew by drawing the boat with the help of ropes to reach the shore. Then the catch of fish would be placed on the shore first. And the crew after clearing the load would come to the shore and count the fish. One third of the catch is meant for the owner of the boat and the balance two third is meant for the crew. The crew will share them based on the number of workers in that boat on that day. If 60 Tunas are there, 20 are meant for the owner and 40 is the workers’ share. If there are 5 workers, each one gets 8 fish per person. (This is only a case for calculation purpose. There may be about 300 at one time, and may be 20 at another time). They divide it and keep separately and the owner would come and collect his share. Either he can sell them to people waiting for purchase or he can take them for drying, according to his mood at that time. Like that the workers are also free either to sell or to take them for drying. But in normal cases, they try to distribute some quantity to the people waiting for them, at the shore. The cost is as determined by them and there is no point in bargaining. If a person wants one he can take one of his likings from the heap and pay the amount asked for by the owner of that heap. But usually it depends on the availability of the day and the number of people waiting for the purchase. And more boats would be coming again, in fair season. So for one day the price of one tuna would be Rupees 60 and the next day, if the catch is more, it will be sold at Rupees 20 also. The balance quantity after sale would be taken by the owners of each heap and use them for their food and distribute free to their relatives and friends and balance available taken for drying.
And the education facilities for my children were excellent, compared to the position in Kerla. There was no strike, no dispute, no politics in the educational institutions. The teachers were mostly from the mainland. And other qualified islanders were also working as teachers. The standard of education was very good and always a cordial atmosphere prevailed between teachers and students and parents. All the books were made available to students at government expense and the education was free in all respects. Also free food was supplied to the needy in the school itself.
We continued there for one year peacefully. At the end of that period, I was given option either to continue or to return to the parent office in Kerala. But all of liked that place and the people and we decided to continue for one more year. Thus after the end of each year, we were given the option to continue or return. But we could not leave the people and the atmosphere there. Thus we continued there for 5 years. And according to the government rules, one employee from another department coming on deputation to the island, maximum service permitted is only 5 years. So we had to return after and end of 5 years.. It was a beautiful and more pleasant chapter in my official life, which always bring sweet memories about the beautiful place and the loving people in the island..