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Paradise found: Minicoy Ahoy!

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-06-2017 Vivek Menezes

When my family first clambered aboard the MV Arabian Sea to head to Minicoy in 2016, we did so with considerable anxiety. It had proved impossible to wrangle anything useful about the tiny Indian Ocean outpost from the Internet, and exceedingly difficult to negotiate more than a few days stay from the agency for the island’s only hotel (the standard package doesn’t exceed five nights but we figured a way around that by combining packages). There was further trepidation when we discovered there were no other tourists on board, only native islanders returning home.

Up on deck on the first magical evening away from the mainland, with pods of dozens of dolphins dancing in the vessel’s wake and flying fish scudding distant from the prow, we had a string of eye-opening encounters with Minicoyans. Every young woman was impressively educated, and almost every man we met had spent his entire adult life travelling extensively all over the world in the service of one shipping line or another. Many were proficient in several languages.

The hotel.

Still marvelling at this unexpected cosmopolitanism, we alighted on the palm-shaded isle to another series of delights. Pocket-sized vehicles (there are less than two dozen private cars on Minicoy) moved slowly along miniature roads lined with pastel, dollhouse-like dwellings. It felt like we had landed in Lilliput.

As we put-putted across the island in an open Jeep, the sea breeze parted coconut fronds to offer tantalizing glimpses of shimmering green in the near distance. We grew hushed in anticipation. Then we turned a final corner, and our jaws dropped. Before us was a miraculous lagoon, gleaming infinite shades of jade in the shallows, fading to unreal azure towards the far distant rim of whitecaps. We realized we were looking at one of the world’s greatest travel wonders.

Curiosities abound in minuscule Minicoy. The stunningly beautiful coral-ringed atoll is just 4.8 sq. km, cobbled together with nine other inhabited islands (and additional unpeopled islands and islets), into the Union territory of Lakshadweep. But this southernmost tip of the archipelago is remarkably unique. It’s far away from the rest of the territory, much closer to the Maldives than any part of India. In addition, from its earliest recorded history, native Minicoyans have sustained an intensely tightly knit, largely endogamous, woman-centred and strictly matrilineal culture that persisted even after the advent of Islam in the 12th century. Their Mahl language is an Indo-Aryan dialect of Maldivian Divehi, which again distinguishes them from the rest of Lakshadweep, where Malayalam prevails.

A boathouse.

But perhaps the most unbelievable contemporary fact about Minicoy is how little is known about it. In 2015, less than 100 tourists spent a single night on the island, and numbers have risen only marginally since then. This means the rarest of rare bonanzas awaits the venturesome voyager—an incredibly beguiling and pristine tropical paradise which is both affordable and exclusive. In two trips, each encompassing a fortnight (after combining packages), last year and earlier this summer, my family has been compelled to share the island’s bounteous pleasures with a grand total of five other travellers.

It takes just a second to bring back every detail of that vision of heaven. I close my eyes, and feel myself back on that coral-strewn beach, laid out in an arc under soaring coconut palms. The pure white sand underfoot is unimaginably powdery, soft like the finest flour. Just behind me is a charming low-rise, fully-equipped modern resort staffed with the friendliest and most hospitable locals. All their attention is lavished on us; there’s no one else in sight. I see me and my sons on bicycles, zipping down zig-zagging pathways leading through the pocket-sized village, just about the size of Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade, densely packed with 12,000 residents, each one quick with invitations to get acquainted, to sit down for a cup of tea. I open my eyes, to the pleasant reminder that all that is not a fantasy. In fact, every bit of that experience is less than a day’s cruise away from Kochi in a comfortable passenger ship.

One of the writer’s sons on a trial dive with an instructor.

In Mahl, Minicoy is “Maliku”, or “of the king”. It was traditionally the ruling seat of the region. An even more time-honoured name is “Mahila-du” or “island of women”. This is because the crescent-shaped idyll has been renowned throughout history for its emphasis on women as the main organizing principle of culture and society. Marco Polo visited a “female island” off the coast of India on his 13th century journey from China to Venice. The globetrotting Moroccan adventurer Ibn Battuta described splendid “Malook”, where women were especially daring and independent. No doubt both these accounts are of Minicoy, which still boasts of a superlative record of gender equity that sets a distinguished example for the rest of India.

On my first trip in 2016, I spent a pleasant afternoon discussing island particularities with Captain Ali Aogothi, a respected island elder who died a few months later. Diminutive, with bright, twinkling eyes, he looked uncannily like Bilbo Baggins. Together, we pursued theories about why women were so dominant in Minicoy: The men stayed away at sea for long periods, there was always uncertainty about their return, etc. To sum up the culture, Aogothi raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and said, “On the ship, no one questions me because I am the boss. But here at home, the only captain is my wife!”

To my own wife’s acute delight (and our sons’ concurrent confusion), we quickly learnt just how singular the female-centred customs of Minicoy are, even compared to the Khasis of Meghalaya or the Nairs of Kerala. German scholar Ellen Kattner has meticulously detailed the intricacies. “All houses on Maliku are the property of the female line. Members of the house are the siblings and children of the sisters. All the members carry the same house name throughout their lives.... At the outset, marriage is a visiting marriage. Husbands come after dinner and leave their wives’ house before breakfast. They take the rest of their meals in their mother’s house.”

Exploring the island on cycle.

When Minicoyans marry, grooms are assigned a bare room in the house of the mother of the bride. The groom and his family are tasked with equipping it with all necessities—a reverse dowry. One newly-wed sailor told me, “I brought everything. They didn’t even give me a toothbrush!” Quite like Captain Aogothi, he was beatifically content with the situation, and radiated real pride in describing his wife’s degrees (he had skipped college to become a seaman).

The head librarian of Minicoy’s tiny book haven, Anisa Athiriganduvar, confirmed that this pattern prevails in the younger generations as well. The perennially smiling 32-year-old told me: “We have 100% literacy, even the oldest people on the island can read and write. Everyone goes to school, but only a few boys choose to attend college. The rest go to work on ships. Meanwhile, 80% of our girls continue their studies on the mainland, and many get advanced degrees.”

Athiriganduvar gave me precious insights into the changes sweeping the island. While Minicoyan women traditionally wear a commodious, colourful, neck-to-toes robe (mauli libas) along with a separate scarf (dholi) covering the head, the young professional wore a brightly patterned hijab to match her salwar-kameez. “These clothes are more comfortable, and easier to wear on my scooter,” she told me. When I pressed her further, she added, “For the younger generation, the old-style costume is only for weddings and festivals. It is true that this is probably the first stage of losing our culture.”

Every time I came up with a difficult question about the island, the librarian and everyone else would inevitably say, “Go to KG”. They meant Mohammed Kulhugege, a retired civil servant who functions as the island’s all-purpose heritage watchdog. When I finally found him at his home, tucked away in a typically Minicoyan warren of lanes doubling bewilderingly back into each other, he served me a feast of local treats, before agreeing with Athiriganduvar that distinctive native customs are disappearing in the wake of smartphones and satellite television.

“These people don’t know their own culture,” said KG, gesturing widely to include the two young men who had guided me to his house, and now looked rather abashed. The older man explained that Minicoyan norms had always been passed on verbally to future generations. “Even now, there isn’t a single book available to explain it.” Our eyes locked as he emphasized, “A living culture can only be passed through communication between the generations. That connection is everything.”

KG’s sentiment lingered powerfully through our visit to Minicoy, with terrific resonance for my own family. Once constantly underfoot, our wee rugrats had morphed seemingly overnight into a trio of racehorses, each galloping full speed in an opposite direction. My eldest son was just emerging from a tunnel of blinkered cramming for his board exams to deliberations about an uncertain future. As a couple, my wife and I had spent two decades nesting together, but now faced the challenge of transitioning to launching our sons into the world. It was in Minicoy that we took the first baby steps, determining the way forward.

First, we discovered our surroundings were incredibly safe. There were no cars on the shore-hugging lanes, and the shimmering, smooth-sanded lagoon extended waist-deep for kilometres. This meant our eight-year-old could be turned loose, and he instantly became a kid transformed, barefoot, sandy-haired, positively piratical. The tyke persuaded someone to teach him to fish, then became a fan (he’s still obsessed) after catching a fat one that he devoured for lunch. My speed-demon middle son took to the kayaks, hurtling full speed around the lagoon in chase of its bemused turtle population. He rented a bike and wandered the length of the island at will.

Meanwhile, my eldest son and I were immersed in the most meaningful experience we have ever shared. Under the outstanding, genuinely affectionate guidance of the resort’s professionals, we took the course to qualify for open water dive certification. The lagoon opened up to us like a sensational highlight reel, its astonishingly clean waters brimming with adventure and excitement. Visibility is so amazing that when we took a night dive to see sleeping turtles and giant sea cucumbers, we found mere starlight filtered easily to the bottom. Every day, there was another spellbinding apotheosis: gargantuan car-length stingrays, leopard-spotted moray eels, an eight-foot nurse shark that looked like it weighed more than both of us put together.

Coming of age is complicated business for fathers and sons, especially when they are similar. This is my story, and that of my father and grandfather too. So much perforce remains unspoken, because words are so hopelessly inadequate. Instead, you are left with body language, the consolation of gesture and touch. It is interesting how all this becomes particularly heightened underwater, where my 16-year-old and I were linked by the diving “buddy system” and forced to rely on each other. We ran through drills to replace the other’s mask and share oxygen. He guided me underwater blind, and I did the same for him. We gawped in mutual delight at clownfish and barracudas, and twirled exultantly just elbow-length from each other, plumb in the middle of immense clouds of tropical fish. Our course ended with a written examination that my son aced and I barely passed. It was one of my finest moments as a father. No words were necessary. As KG said, just communication is the thing.

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

Trip planner

Go

The only way to book passage on a ship from Kochi to Minicoy, and a stay in the island’s hotel, is via Lakshadweep Tourism’s monopolistic Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (aka SPORTS), which manages all tourism to the islands.

Stay

You will need to book a package which includes ship fare, island stay and all meals, via their website Lakshadweeptourism.com (Rs58,000 for a five-night island stay and two nights on ship). At the dive centre, visitors can sign up to learn (Rs20,000 for open water diver certification) or experienced divers can sign up for dives (starting from Rs3,000). Snorkelling gear is available on rent, and the lagoon is gentle enough for even non-swimmers to give it a go.

Eat

The food at the hotel, though basic, is fresh and well-made. Insist on Minicoyan specialities, which are superior to the “regular” north Indian and Indian Chinese fare. Remember to try the milkshakes and lassis (made from milk from their own dairy) and fried chicken. There is one outstanding place if you want to eat away from the hotel, the shack-like Evening Star.

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