A grim look at the history and current state of four tribes on the Andaman Islands.
Former Scientific American editor Mukerjee first traveled to the Bay of Bengal in 1995 to visit the tiny islands, once a British penal colony and now part of India. Of the four tribes, the Great Andamanese are virtually decimated; the Indian government records a population of 37, the rest having fallen victim to flu, measles, and the like. The Onge, swamped with refugees from Bangladesh, number about a hundred and still attempt to follow their nomadic traditions. The Jarawa aggressively defend their remaining territory; shortly before the author’s visit, they killed a pregnant settler. Neither the British nor the Indians tried to colonize the Sentinelese, who live almost completely free of outside contact. The author’s interactions with the local people are fleeting in a narrative intended as a history lesson rather than an anthropological treatise. Her afternoon with the Onge reveals a dispirited people dressed in rags begging for spare change. One tribal member spoke with the author about their poverty, explaining that a welfare staff appointed by the Indian government keeps chickens, but no chickens are given to the Onge, who also receive no money for their land or the logging of their island timber. Mukerjee benefits from a chance meeting with the supposedly aggressive Jarawa and through pantomime tries to find a common ground. She notes that this meeting probably wouldn’t happen with the Great Andamanese or the Onge, who would see her as a member of the ruling class only, never an equal. As Mukerjee lists the bleak contemporary conditions of the tribes, she peppers her reports with equally dismal historical documents. Tribal lands have been and still are stolen; tribe members are offered little in the way of education and are accepted—grudgingly—in only the lowest rungs of society.
Well-executed portrait of four cultures soon to be extinct. (5 b&w photos, 1 map)