Sunday, May 23, 2004

Paradise lost
Samra Rahman

The Land of Naked People: Encounters With Stone Age Islanders
by Madhusree Mukerjee. Penguin. Rs 250. Pages 238.

The surviving tribes of the Andamans continue to be objects of tourist interest and academic enquiry. — Photos Net

THE unlikely author of this book on the Andaman group of islands, its original inhabitants and their encounters with outsiders, is an expatriate Indian, who holds a doctorate in Physics from the University of Chicago and works for the Scientific American. And yet The Land of Naked People is not just a potpourri of vignettes from the usual tourist spots.

Mukerjee is not your usual camera-toting tourist, who observes the landscape through tinted glasses and looks down at the natives from a safe and sanitary distance. She took a long sabbatical and travelled around the islands, not in cozy comfort but by public transport and sometimes even hitched rides on trucks.

Her approach has none of the neutral objectivity of a professional anthropologist, for whom the natives are but a subject of study. She conveys total empathy with the islands’ original inhabitants and an appreciation of the still surviving beauty of the land: "...water as clear and as blue as the innards of a gemstone – I recall as though from a dream, so ethereal that I felt the gods must steal down to play here."

She weaves back and forth through history and through her own extended trips to the islands to bring out how various outsiders looked upon the natives as Stone-Age savages, who could be eliminated to ‘save’ that paradise for ‘civilisation’.

She brings out some interesting nuggets of information. In the 19th century, it seems, some Andamanese were taken to Calcutta and displayed at the zoo, where Bengali visitors often took them to be the descendants of Hanuman. The British deliberately exposed the natives to alcohol and tobacco with a view to get them addicted: "they might also be taught to smoke, thus establishing a craving which intercourse with us can alone satisfy."

Mukerjee not only chronicles the overexploitation of forests and land but also the devastating effect that such exploitation has on the natives’ way of life. She movingly brings out how this has led to the people losing all zest for life. She writes: "Just five hundred or so islanders still survive, and their lives are changing fast. Their tale is one of conflict with outsiders such as me."

However she tends to be too harsh on Indian administrators. While there may be a great deal of corruption and inefficiency in the administration, the intentions of the government cannot be doubted. The government, no doubt, faces the classic dilemma as to whether the natives should be left to their own devices or whether efforts should be made to improve their lot. It is easy to be nostalgic about the ‘happy and carefree savages’ without taking a hard look at reality. It appeals to our romantic notions that the natives use calabashes and seashells for drinking and we feel horrified when they take to plastic mugs and buckets.

It is a well-researched book and the many details the author gives do not weigh down the narrative. A minor bone to pick is the repetition of the common mistake that Marco Polo on his return voyage was escorting a princess who belonged to the house of Kublai Khan and was to marry an Indian prince. The princess was, in fact, travelling to Persia, where she was to marry the ruler who was also a Mongol.