Dangerously touristy

Published : Mar 23, 2023 10:35 IST - 7 MINS READ

Cover of Andamanush Nicobarese

Cover of Andamanush Nicobarese | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

A free mix of fiction and lopsided depictions of reality, the book is a historian’s and anthropologist’s nightmare.

“The entire island, with all its population, houses and habitations, got totally submerged and everything was wiped and washed out,” Partha Sarthi Sen Sharma quotes the Assistant Commissioner of Nancowry subdivision of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI), as saying. “So, nobody lives there now?” queried the author. “No… if you don’t count that one Nicobarese man…. His entire family, like so many other families, were swept away that terrible night and their bodies were never found,” replied the administrator. “Out of sheer shock, he lost his voice and probably his senses too. Since then, he alone lives… on the deserted and cursed island... he just sits and stares silently.”

Andamanush Nicobarese
By Partha Sarthi Sen Sharma
Rupa Publications India
Pages: 272
Price: Rs.395

This macabre description of Nicobar’s Trinket Island in Andamanush Nicobarese, a book based on the brief travels in 2019 of the civil servant Partha Sarthi Sen Sharma in the ANI, reminded me of my 2014 visit to Trinket with two Nicobarese—Portifer, a former inhabitant of the island, and Casper James, the former Assistant Commissioner of Nancowry.

Contrary to what the book claims, hundreds of islanders on Trinket survived the 2004 tsunami: the government relocated them to an adjacent island by allotting them permanent shelters.

The Nicobarese never abandoned Trinket believing it was “cursed”; they simply lost it to humanitarian aid. “While the tsunami took away 91 people (out of 432), the aid swept away the entire island community,” Portifer told me. An indigene, Gopinath, was the first among the many who returned to the island. During our conversation, I found this elderly person wise and cheerful, rather than somebody who had “lost his voice” or “senses.”

Inadvertently, the book attempts to undo the tireless efforts of activists and scholars in generating awareness about the islands’ fragile ecosystem.

Inadvertently, the book attempts to undo the tireless efforts of activists and scholars in generating awareness about the islands’ fragile ecosystem. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

This is just one of the many baffling claims made by the book, which hovers halfway between fiction and reality. Presented as a “Travenovel” (travelogue and novel), a portmanteau word Sen Sharma seems to have coined, the book is difficult to categorise. While Rupa, the publisher, calls it “Non-Fiction/Travelogue”, the author’s note discloses that “many of the conversations, events and experiences are works of pure imagination”. A mixture of fiction and lopsided depictions of reality that an average reader cannot tell apart, Andamanush Nicobarese is a historian’s and an anthropologist’s nightmare.

While travelling in the ANI, the author had a realisation that most first-time travellers usually experience: “I, and many of my countrymen, know pitiably less about these unique islands,” he writes. However, unlike the average tourist, Sen Sharma took upon himself the extraordinary responsibility of writing and sharing the multilayered history of the islands—“stories of aboriginals, the colonial British, Indian freedom fighters, the Japanese, settlers from the mainland and ‘local borns’, the nightmarish tsunami” and more.

Free mix

He claims that he “dived deeper into the subject, read, researched and interviewed people.” But the fruit of his “labour of love”—Andamanush Nicobarese—says otherwise. Rather than undertaking a painstaking archival or field research, the author relied entirely on whatever people—mostly bureaucrats and non-indigenous peoples, none of them a historian or an anthropologist—shared with him, besides his own casual observations.

He hopped from one island to another in a helicopter. With little time to collect data, cross-check information, and consult different sources, he credulously took his often-ignorant and prejudiced informants at their word. All that gossip (with some facts added from secondary literature), somehow, made it safely to the final draft. The free mix of reality and imagination defeats the very purpose of the book.

Errors galore

The book is full of errors. For instance, it claims that the islands are home to six endangered tribes, which is factually incorrect. Of the six indigenous communities inhabiting the ANI, five—the Jarawa, the Sentinelese, the Onge, the Great Andamanese, and the Shompen—are recognised as “particularly vulnerable tribal groups” (PVTGs). The Nicobarese, whose population is over 27,000 (Census 2011), are not endangered.

The book asserts that the Andamans were “almost uninhabited islands that were only beginning to be ‘settled’” when the British colonised them in the mid-19th century, which is also factually incorrect. An estimated 5,500 to 8,000 indigenes inhabited the archipelago, where they had lived in isolation for millennia before the colonists occupied their habitat and ravaged them.

The commentary on the Battle of Aberdeen (1859) and the ensuing visit of Dudhnath Tewari, a quisling, to the Andamans is misleading. It is based on conjecture rather than historical records. “There are no documents and evidences, and the actors of the drama were too busy taking and saving lives to write about it all,” asserts the author, absolving himself of responsibility.

A tourist walks on a sandbar in the Andaman Islands. Presented as a “Travenovel” (travelogue and novel), the book is difficult to categorise.

A tourist walks on a sandbar in the Andaman Islands. Presented as a “Travenovel” (travelogue and novel), the book is difficult to categorise. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Then, the book says that the “German Navy was about to invade [these] Nicobar Islands at the height of the First World War”. This is a figment of an informant’s imagination, which is based on his half-baked knowledge of a German raider (whose name he could not recall) that touched Nancowry during the war and steamed ahead further, when Rani Islon hoisted the Union Jack to welcome it.

The raider SMS Emden, commanded by Karl Fredrich Max von Müller, whom The Times later described as a “brave and chivalrous foe”, had not come to invade Nancowry. Its sole aim was to play havoc with British shipping in the Indian Ocean.

Colonial hangover

The discussions between Sen Sharma and his informants often reek of colonial hangover. For instance, he asks: “What about the others—the Sentinelese, for example? I have heard they are the most violent ones today?” They often portray the islands as “inhospitable”, “infested with deadly diseases, pests, insects, snakes”, and “totally uninhabited and eternally untouched by human civilization”; while the indigenous peoples are caricatured as “primitive tribes”, “inhospitable and often violent tribes”, “marauding tribes”, and “dangerous aboriginal tribes”.

“The ethical implications of what Sen Sharma says distracted me constantly while reading the book.”

Inadvertently, the book attempts to undo the tireless efforts of activists and scholars in generating awareness about the several critical issues faced by the islands’ fragile ecosystem.

Among other issues, the way it presents the case of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) is highly problematic. The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier (UNESCO, 2010), an important book that can easily be downloaded for free, sheds light brilliantly on the issue of the ATR and its implications for the Jarawa. But Sen Sharma chooses to quote from an ignorant government physician, who rationalises the inevitability of the ATR passing through the Jarawa reserve thus: “There was no other alignment possible.”

Members of the Jarawa tribe in the Andaman Islands.

Members of the Jarawa tribe in the Andaman Islands. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

While arguing that the ATR is a “real lifeline of the Andamans”, Sen Sharma does not mention a single viewpoint to the contrary except that the Jarawa showered “deadly arrows on the labourer gangs and even on the moving buses” until they realised the futility of their action. Such a description, bereft of proper context, villainises the already belittled hunter-gatherers in the popular imagination by reinforcing the stereotype of the “hostile savage”.

The ethical implications of what Sen Sharma says distracted me constantly while reading the book. Trinket’s chilling story, as narrated by an assistant commissioner, whom the author calls the “ruler of all that met his eyes and all that he surveyed—the tiny isolated islands of his subdivision” is most disturbing, to say the least. To me, it seems unlikely that a senior officer would give such a false account. Even if the conversation is imaginary, how would readers know?

The depiction of Trinket as a “cursed” island with all its inhabitants, except for a melancholic man, dead, would be lodged in their mind. Is it ethically right to conjure up such a plot? I discussed it with a Nicobarese leader in Nancowry. “They know we cannot read. So, they write whatever pleases them,” he said.

Similarly, Sen Sharma says that during his visit to Great Nicobar, an Assistant Conservator of Forests at Campbell Bay offered to take him to the “Shompen huts”. “If you are lucky… you may even get to meet some Shompen people,” he says. Again, we are not sure if the conversation is real or imaginary. But it certainly puts the PVTGs at risk—a reader might visit the islands expecting a “human safari”. Andamanush Nicobarese looks at the ANI with a tourist’s gaze, which exoticises the islands and fails to notice the fault lines. The book warps local history, glosses over critical realities, and eschews real issues. Rupa should have classified it as fiction.

Ajay Saini is Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities.

  • The book is full of baffling claims, which hover halfway between fiction and reality.
  • Inadvertently, the book attempts to undo the tireless efforts of activists and scholars in generating awareness about the Andamans’ fragile ecosystem.
  • The ethical implications of what Sen Sharma says about the indigenous people of the islands are distracting.

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