The bullet holes are still visible on the walls. One of the bullets exited the skull of Anuradha Rao's grandfather in 1943.

She is overcome by emotion each day when she brings a new group of tourists to Ross Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from Port Blair, the capital of India's remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Time has stood still on Ross. This beautiful island, just about 70 acres in size, has a grim past.

For more than 80 years, it was the headquarters of a British penal settlement on the Andamans.

The place lies in ruins in the very real sense of the word.
It bears a haunted look worthy of a Bollywood horror flick. Remains of several buildings, built by the British authorities for their soldiers and jailers, today stand under the crushing grip of gigantic roots of trees.

These buildings were evacuated when the invading Japanese arrived in 1942 at the height of the Second World War.

The island, like the rest of the Andamans, was under the occupation of the Imperial Army until Japan surrendered in 1945.

Rao is perhaps the most knowledgeable living authority on the history and geography of Ross. She knows the island like the back of her hand.

Even the deer — a few hundred roam about the place — respond to her call and come rushing out for the delicacies she brings daily from Port Blair in her handbag.

When the Japanese invaded, her grandfather, who was involved in the Indian freedom struggle raging at that time, was a prisoner of the British on the island. He was serving a life term for “sabotage activities''.

“He was doubly unfortunate. One the one hand he was banished to this desolate island for life by the occupying British. On the other, he was tortured for more than a year on suspicion of being a British spy by the far more brutal Japanese. He was executed along with several other prisoners, such as Farzand Ali, with a bullet to the head,'' Rao said.

Ali, from the North West Frontier Province in present-day Pakistan, ran the island's only grocery, which still stands in remarkably good condition. He was the first businessman on Ross.

Grainy photographs enshrined in the small but interesting museum paint a picture of past opulence.

There is the image of the island's church in its glory days. A hollowed-out ruin is all that remains today. Not much, however, remains of the impressive bungalow of the chief commissioner except the swimming pool, where ducks and geese now swim.

The island's cemetery contains the graves of the British officers and their wives and children, many of whom died from tropical diseases.

Though the first survey of the island was conducted in 1740, the penal settlement was not built until 1857, after the outbreak of the First War of Independence in the mainland. The island gets its name from Sir Daniel Ross, a marine surveyor.

Most of the buildings were built by the prisoners themselves.
The last British chief commissioner of the island was Sir Charles Francis Waterfall, who had been appointed to the post in 1938. He was taken prisoner of war by the Japanese in 1942. His deputy, Major Bird, suffered a far more ghastly fate: He was transported to Port Blair and beheaded in the central square in public.

Since 1979, Ross Island has been run by the Indian Navy, which has set up a small, permanent post here. No one is allowed to settle on the island.

The only people living here are the naval officers and their civilian helpers, who while away time watching Hindi films. Visitors have to sign a guestbook.

Ross Island, according to Rao, was originally 200 acres in size, but lost 130 acres after the earthquake of 1941. “Large tracts of land simply disappeared into the sea.

The 2004 tsunami also took its toll on the island. But since the main impact was on Nicobar and not on Andaman, it escaped major damage.''

One of the most intriguing structures on Ross Island was built by the Japanese.

Lore has it that the Japanese Tunnel, that extends all the way to Port Blair 7 kilometres away, contains looted treasure stashed by soldiers of the Imperial Army — who also stuffed the tunnel with explosives to dissuade treasure hunters. Rao said no one, to her knowledge, has tried to recover the fabled treasure.

Few residents share Rao's passion for the island, though. Antaryami Nayak, a Leading Seaman of the navy posted on Ross Island and attached to INS Virat, said: “I can understand the curiosity about and the uniqueness of the island. But for me, the events here look like something from another life, another time. I don't think of what went on here in those days. The past is past.''

Most tourists arriving in the ferries that leave Port Blair every hour also share Nayak's views.

However, Rao believes, Ross holds an important lesson for today's generation of Indians. “It's only when you visit such places and understand their history that you can comprehend the scale of the sacrifices made by people of another generation so that we can live in freedom.''