Development and Ethnocide -
colonial practices in the Andaman islands
Published by the International Work Group for Indigenous
Tel. +45 35270500
Fax +45 35270507
Published December 2004
This book is a gem. Yet, when I first held it in my hands, I was not too enthusiastic about the "ethnocide" and the "colonial practices" in the title, let alone the dread word "gender" in the preface. All three made me fear yet another pamphlet of politically correct drivel. My fears were unfounded. The author uses those words convincingly and in the right context, not once sounding the PC trumpet. In fact, during my initial misgivings turned into delight.
Venkateswar has managed that most difficult of feats: she has written a book that gives a lot of new data to the specialist, while at the same time entertaining and educating the interested lay person. After finishing this book, the reader will know a great deal about one of the world's most enigmatic people and the unique situation in the Andaman islands. The various Negrito groups described in this book have been of the highest scientific interest for more than 100 years, but they have always been regarded as scientific oddities, the duckbill platypus of the human race. Once you have read this book, the oddity will have turned from a scientific abstraction into sympathetic human beings whose background and culture nevertheless remains fascinating and unusual. This alone is a major accomplishment.
The book also contains the best and most readable account that I have ever had the privilege to read on how ethnological and anthropological information is actually gathered on the ground. It is a exciting, messy and very complex process - a fact that does not come through most bone-dry specialist textbooks. The reader gets a minimum of theorising and a maximum of interesting insights into an alien culture, while picking up interesting facts about scientific procedure. There is the real nitty-gritty, the mundane difficulties, the discomfort, the triumphs and the failures, the misunderstandings, the inexplicable silences and unexpected reactions, the revelations on both sides, with more than a hint of remaining mysteries. We are still a long way from understanding the Negrito. There is also the struggle with the superficially well-meaning but in reality ethnocidal state welfare apparatus, alongside Venkateswar's slowly developing relationships with her interviewees and her growing insight into what is really going on with the Negrito.
The author is not only one tough lady (she had to be, given the climate and circumstances) she also has a talent for establishing a rapport with the people she studies. She describes the changing relationship between the sexes among the Onge ("gender" turns up here, at last), the awful role of the welfare system and its association with corruption and alcohol. Venkateswar's description of how the Onge women have taken their shirking menfolk to task alone is worth more than the price of the book. It is both hilarious and sad. This male reviewer certainly feels rather closer to the Onge (both male and female) after reading this section than he would ever have thought possible.
Venkateswar's criticism of Indian colonial attitudes towards the Andamanese is well-informed and scathing. She shows convincingly that "ethnocide" and "colonial attitudes" are fully justified - to both the old British and the present Indian administrations. The recent catastrophic tsunami has shaken up the complacent administration of the islands, turning the world's spotlight on its hitherto privileged obscurity. Thick skins hase become much thinner. By sheer coincidence, Venkateswar's criticisms have been published at precisely the right time - two weeks before the tsunami. Perhaps, with luck, they will improve the chance of survival of the Negrito people the future.
No self-respecting reviewer can finish without airing a few grievances. The only major omission in the book is the lack of an index. A scientific book destined to become a standard reference work without an index! Whatever is the world coming to? Less serious but still annoying is some pretentious academese in the introductory sections of the book. This could put off some potential readers - it nearly did me, until I discovered that the main body of the book which is written in clear and straightforward language. A minor quibble is what my teachers used to call the "disease of sicery" - every time the word "Jàrawa" is quoted with an accent-grave (and it is often so quoted), a "sic" follows self-importantly in square brackets. This is pointless and irritating.
I repeat: this book is a gem. Any library that does not stock it must be regarded as deficient.
The Andaman Association
The author and her book at the publication at Calcutta, December 2004:
Last changed 30 March 2006