The Land of the Naked People - Encounters with Stone Age Islanders
2003, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York
pages i-xx, 1-268, including bibliography and index
hard cover size 14 x 21.5 cm (5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in)
DS432.A54 M85 2003
Let us get the one and only thing out of the way first that this reviewer did not like much about this book: the title. Naked always sells, I suppose, and the publisher had to have his pound of flesh. If the title does indeed help sales, one can live with it - for this is a book that deserves to sell well and widely.
Well-written books on Andamanese subjects are rare. This is one of them. It tackles its unusual subject from many angles, with tact and verve. It is never boring. Long experience has made this reviewer dread big fat books written by Indian authors. Not so here: the English is a joy to read, simple, fluent, elegant. The restrained classical typography on good paper is an added bonus, as are the excellent index and bibliography. The relatively small format easily fits into a travel bag, providing a good read on the road. Yet the same book is just as comfortable and useful in our research library.
This is a book that can be read profitably not just in many circumstances but on many levels. Mukerjee seems to have a marked talent for making people open up to her; she does not have problems in talking to a great many interesting people from all levels of Andaman society . She is also eminently quotable and has a critical yet tactful way with the often dubious local worthies and power mongers. This combination has allowed her to talk to the very people who have created the present Jarawa mess. One begins to understand the administrators a little better. Most of them were not evil, just stupid or inexperienced. Such understanding does not improve the local situation but it helps at least to understand how the world`s most unusual aboriginal people, the Andamanese Negrito, have come to such a pass.
The text is clearly structured by the four Andamanese groups: the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentineli. Whether expert or newcomer to the subject, there is no problem navigating around in this book. The author soon makes it clear clear why the Andamanese are such an unusual, indeed unique, people in today`s world. No other living human population has been isolated from other humans for such a long time (latest DNA results indicate a period of more than 30,000, perhaps as much as 60,000 years). Mukerjee has an enviable way of highlighting both the differences and the similarities between the four groups of these exceptional people and communicates with individual Andamanese to a most remarkable degree. The Andamanese people come off the paper as individual personalities, not the standardized cardboard cutouts they often are in scientific writing (including, I do admit, my own) or when "representing" their groups. They are stupid and intelligent, violent and peaceful, happy and miserable, generous and mean - human beings, in other words, just like the rest of the human race.
For newcomers to the subject of the Andaman islands and their extraordinary native inhabitants, Mukerjee provides an exciting and highly informative introduction. First time visitors will get a good idea of life around Port Blair, the local Indian settler population and their complex relationship with the Andamanese as well as a sympathetic introduction to the Andamanese themselves. I wish I had had such a book at hand before my first visit to the islands many years ago.
For people who have been reading and collecting material on the islands for many years (such as myself), the book holds many surprises. I found incidents, historical and recent, descibed with much more detail than I have been able to dig up myself. The author clearly has done her homework and is to be unresevedly congratulated for the quality and thoroughness of her research. One astonishing discovery she made concerns the Andamanese Jarawa woman, Topsy, who had been captured as an 8-year old in 1938 in the course of a British "police action". In those days, hardly anything was known about the Jarawa (not that much more is known about them today) and they were regarded as bloodthirsty "junglees" to be shot without too many questions asked. Topsy suffered a bullet wound on capture but survived the horrors of the following Japanese occupation of the islands 1942-1945. After the war she was sent to the Nicobar islands where she married a Nicobarese man. In the course of her research, Mukerjee discovered that the 78-year old Topsy was still alive in the Nicboars but her husband and children all dead. She refuses to talk to anyone and one can understand her - but what a story she could tell!
The book is full of such surprises.
There can be only one recommendation: buy the book and read it! Then go out again and buy several more copies to present to your best friends.
The Andaman Association
Last changed 30 March 2006