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A Tale of Conflicts

Uma Das Gupta

By Madhusree Mukerjee
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2003, pp. xviii 238, Rs. 250.00


Gaudolambe – Little Andaman – had been the Onge’s universe. Their worldview and perhaps even their psyches were wrapped around its contours. Every beach, every stream, every redwood tree, every beehive they used to know and cherish.   “When outsiders settle and destroy, they resist. When they can’t, they get demoralized,’ related Biswanath Sarkar, a young anthropologist I met in Calcutta. ‘While I was there a little girl died in an accident, a stone another child threw hit her. I said to some of the elders, “I am sorry the child died.” ’ ‘ “What does it matter?” they replied. “Our god has died.” ’-- The Land of the Naked People p.106   This book is a fine piece of writing combin- ing the personal with the scholarly. It is about some groups of Stone Age islanders inhabiting the Andaman Islands situated about seven hundred and fifty miles southeast of Calcutta. They are about ten tribes, between five and eight thousand in number, occupying most of the Great Andamans and the adjacent small islands.   The book comes with a nice little hand-drawn map. The islanders remained on the whole ‘untouched’ by the outside world till the coming of the British colonists. The first outsider to do a survey of the area in the late eighteenth century was an Englishman called John Ritchie, hydrographer of the East India Company. He came up with a detailed account of the archipelago in 1771. Twenty years later ‘a French merchant vessel was reported to be offering Andamanese slaves for sale’(pp.x-xi). In the early nineteenth century this trade became an organized affair. Ritchie’s story of how they overpowered the natives is horrendous with both sides putting up an unequal fight in the waters. In the end the captors prevailed and Ritchie wrote in his report ‘never were men so terrified’ (p.1). Given this as a start to their relationship with ‘outsiders’ it is revealing from the accounts in Madhusree Mukerjee’s book how the islanders grew to become confident individuals over the years, ‘poignantly clear-eyed as to the trap in which fate had flung them’(p.xvi). Their tale continues to this day to be that of ‘conflict with outsiders’.   Madhusree Mukerjee’s imagination of the area was stirred in her teenage days in Calcutta when she knew someone who had sailed from Calcutta to the Andamans in a rowboat and who regaled her with stories of ...

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