Ancient people for whom birds no longer sing

The Land of Naked People

February 11, 2005

The Andaman Islands have been in the news recently because of the Asian tsunami. Madhusree Mukerjee's poignant narrative about the Andamans and their four indigenous groups - the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese, who may well be among the last of the planet's first humans - is a powerful reminder of a different kind of destruction: that which is often left behind by "civilising" and "modernising" missions.

Despite the many ethnographic accounts of them that have been in circulation over the 20th century, the original inhabitants of the Andamans remain an exotic species for the world at large: frizzy-haired "pygmies" who wear no clothes and never learnt to catch fish with a hook or to grow crops. Mukerjee crafts her tale by weaving together historical anecdotes and anthropological findings with her own experiences in the islands, which she visited several times between 1995 and 2000. Hers is a devastating critique of the zeal to civilise, which often proves economically lucrative for those who plan and perpetuate it. By developing themes around the different one-sided encounters that have historically forced the Andaman islanders to interact with the outside world, Mukerjee provides an in-depth commentary on the systematic exploitation of the islands for more than 150 years, first by Britain and then by India.

The consequences are stark: an entire ecosystem is on its way to extinction. The once-extensive Andaman beaches are stripped of their sand; the vivid coral reefs that once encircled the islands are choked and dead; the freshwater tables of the interiors have become polluted; and the 25-million-year-old rainforests have gone up in smoke to make clearings for what was once a colonial hobby, plantations.

The islanders themselves, exposed to epidemics and fatal diseases from the time of their first extended encounters with convicts, traders and the petty officials of colonial India, number just 500 today - down from more than 5,000 according to a mid-19th century estimate. But as the present Onges say: "What does it matter? Our god has died." The ingenious skills with which these people had kept their world together for hundreds of years before they were visited have never been recognised; instead, their environments have been deliberately destroyed. In the barrenness of their islands, the birds no longer sing.

Although Mukerjee cites many known histories of the taming of the fierce and hostile savages, as the islanders were inevitably seen, their capture as ethnographic curiosities and their display, on one occasion in the zoological gardens of Calcutta, it is through the stories of contemporary men and women of the islands, such as Prakash, Diu, Bada Raja and Topsy, that the book most effectively documents the horrors of these taming missions. Abused, deprived, mocked and at best treated like wayward children, the islanders cannot now evade the vices of civilisation because, as Mukerjee drily remarks, "the very soil that nourished (their) roots has been replaced by rubble".

Sudeshna Guha is research associate, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University.

The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders

Author - Madhusree Mukerjee
Publisher - Houghton Mifflin
Pages - 268
Price - $24.00
ISBN - 0 618 19736 2

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