Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Land of Naked People - book

The Land of Naked People, Encounters with Stone Age Islanders, Madhusree Mukerjee (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003)

This is one of the strangest books I have ever read. I picked it up recently in our wonderful local bookstore, thought it looked interesting, and have only now finished it. Just interpreting from the book itself it is difficult, if not virtually impossible, to know what kind of book it is. It might be merely a travel book written by an Indian woman who traveled to the Andaman Islands, and because of her father’s influence was allowed to travel more than the usual tourist. But it is more than that because it also deals with the history of the Andaman Islanders. However, it is not a history book either. It is certainly not an anthropological work, although it contains some ethnographic information and cites quite a number of anthropologists. There are occasional flowery prose passages here and there throughout the text but it is clearly not literature as we usually think of literature, nor is it a purely journalistic account as it includes far more detail and lacks the precision of a journalistic book. It is certainly not a scientific work. I am left to wonder what she had in mind other than writing a kind of travel/adventure book for a broad audience, certainly the unfortunately titillating title suggests this. In spite of all, I did find it quite interesting, if somewhat depressing, as it does relate how the Andaman Islanders and their culture have, like so many other such peoples, been debased and virtually destroyed by their contact with the “outside world.”

Similarly, from the book itself, you have no idea just who the author is or what her credentials are. The dust jacket merely reports she once served on the board of editors of the Scientific American and that she received a Guggenheim grant to write this book. She must have had a project in mind but you cannot tell what it was (other than perhaps taking a trip and writing a book). By dint of careful reading you also are informed that she once studied physics and had a thesis advisor (for what thesis you cannot know). She also reports having been taught to be a journalist. From Google I finally learned she is considered a scientific journalist and has more recently written a second book, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of Indian During World War II. I trust her experience with her first book will help focus her efforts on the latter.

The book itself is mostly an account of her travels in different areas of the Andaman Islands, the different tribal people she observed, and the incredible bureaucratic difficulties she experienced in trying to do what she wished. Some of the areas were/are off limits to visitors and it was only through the influence of her father that she managed as well as she did. When India became independent they also became responsible for the Andaman Islands, which by then had already been badly decimated, a condition that has continued under the Indian administration so there are now apparently only about 500 of the original inhabitants left. As in other areas of the world exploited shamelessly there are timber poachers and others illegally removing whatever of value they can find. The aboriginal population, one of the few groups of pygmies in the world, who once lived, literally, in a land of plenty, have been reduced to living off government handouts and are slowly dying out. There are a few, even now, the Jarawa, that have not been completely pacified, especially a small group on Northern Sentinel Island, but they, too, are doomed. The natives that were not shot or otherwise killed by the British and the Indians have succumbed to various diseases they did not previously have and of course their aboriginal culture has largely disappeared. Where they unashamedly went naked except for a few decorations and paint, proud of their fine bodies, strong and capable, so fierce ships did not want to stop there, accused (falsely) of being cannibals, they now dress mostly in rags and can no longer live as they previously did. It is much the same story that has repeated itself all around the world and, unfortunately, continues to the present day in some areas. If you have an interest in native people, the Andaman Islands, the deleterious effects of culture contact, and now even the possible effects of global warming, you will find this book of interest.

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