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The Rediff Interview/Physicist Madhusree Mukerjee
August 18, 2003
The Sentinelese, perhaps the last group of Stone Age people, on the Andamans wear no clothes, do not know how to start a fire and have rejected outsiders for centuries. But that has been changing for the 500 Sentilese, physicist Madhusree Mukerjee writes in her first book The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders (Houghton Mifflin, $24).
The author, who was a Scientific American editor for many years, had rare access to the island and others that make up the Andaman chain in the Bay of Bengal. Though she feels she could have had more opportunities to visit and meet with indigenous people, she is aware this is the first book of its kind -- part investigation into the misery of the Andamanese, part travelogue, part anthropology. Her Indian passport helped in her endeavor.
Over seven years of visits and research on the islands, Mukerjee, a Guggenheim Fellow, was saddened and angry to discover other aboriginals abandoned their ancient ways for enticements such as plastic toys, aerated drinks and in some cases motorcycles. The price was dramatic: outsiders have taken tribal land, brought in serious diseases, she writes, and left the original inhabitants 'with a broken sense of self.'
Mukerjee, who lives near New York with her physicist husband and three-year-old son, spoke to Arthur J Pais from Frankfurt, Germany, where she was visiting her husband's family.
In one of the first reviews of the book, Publishers Weekly wrote, 'Red tape and safety concerns prevent her from performing meticulous anthropology, and she devotes only a few pages to recent studies of Andaman language and DNA, which may make significant contributions to global genetic research. In her defense, Mukerjee is neither a biologist nor an anthropologist (she has a PhD in physics), and her personal chronicle of the Andamanese is an impassioned portrait at an ancient culture on the brink of vanishing.'
You went to the Andamans several times on your own. Did your family not worry about it?
My mother went to the temple and prayed to Kali. It was interesting as my research continued, I began to think of Kali and see her in a very different light.
What was your earlier concept like?
I used to be terrified for a very long time. As a child I wondered why anybody would want to worship this frightening figure.
That has changed now?
Absolutely. When I see the traditional pictures of Kali I see her on a tiger. I see skulls around her neck and they are of lighter color. I remember we got the concept of Kali from tribals. They have been hounded by lighter skinned people. She was naturally their protector.
Did you run into red tape while researching the book?
Plenty of it. Relatives and friends in India — I will not mention names because I do not want to get them bad publicity — had to work very hard to get me access (to the indigenous people).
What other problems did you run into?
An official looked at my documents and said, 'You are Dr Miss Mukerjee,' emphasizing the word 'miss.' I must have been 37 at that time (in 1998). He must have thought, 'What kind of weirdo you are at this age that you do not have a husband?'
Did you run into other problems because of a similar perception?
Not problems, really. People in India think anyone who is single and has come from America is a slut — if you are older, they think you are bizarre..
What did you feel like telling them?
That there is premarital sex in America, but it does not mean one has to be promiscuous. They (people in India) have a very peculiar idea about promiscuity. A ticket collector in the Andamans advised me not to wait any longer to get married. It was also a signal for him to hit on me. But I did not feel threatened. We were in the Little Andamans and everyone knew what everyone else did.
How did this book come about?
The Andamans was a land of mystery and beauty to me. I read many enchanted things about the islands. I also read a snippet about the aboriginal people. Soon I discovered how they lived in utter poverty, exploited by the outside world. First there were the British, then the corrupt Indian bureaucracy and so-called social workers. Some of them are in reality criminals.
I was trained as a physicist but this book is far different from science stories I have written. I was very influenced by the book Savages focusing on Amazon Indians and their plight. It told with humor and compassion the story of their fight against oil companies.
What does this book offer?
It offers insights into the processes of colonization and modernization, the persistence of harmful myths about 'savages,' and the continuing, disturbing relationship between light and dark-skinned peoples.
What are some things you want people to take away from the book?
Let me first talk of one thing I want readers not to do: to join the tourists.
I am against tourism in the Andamans. The ecology there is very fragile. There is very little drinking water on the islands. Yet hotels get enough water. There are about 500 Sentinelese, who do not want to be disturbed.
But are not people making an effort to see the Sentinelese?
Some tour companies outside India bring people in speedboats. Such things disturb the Sentinelese. It is harmful to them. Such unauthorized excursions should be stopped.
That brings us back to the question of what are some things you want readers to take from the book?
This book is much more than a glimpse into disappearing humanity. I expect readers to feel for the people of the Andamans, to care about them, to get involved and lend their voices to debate about these people. When they read the book I want them to come away thinking of their responsibilities to people who had to suffer.
Is this why the academic press did not publish this book?
I did not want it published by a university press. I wanted it to reach a very wide audience. I also wanted people to know they can easily read the book.
How about readers in the West?
I want them -- this is true for people everywhere -- to think of older civilizations, tribal and aboriginal people who have been decimated. We have inherited their land, if not their culture. In many cases, we have inherited their culture too.
What is your next project?
Working on the project made me interested deeply about British colonialism in India and its lingering effects.
Poverty, for example. For many years, from my school days, I have heard of India being described as a developing country. I wondered, very early on, why India remained that way when Britain was developing rapidly because of the Industrial Revolution. Now, I know the British wanted us to remain poor. The root cause of Indian poverty is British colonization.
What area of British colonization are you particularly interested in?
In the 1943 Bengal famine. Over 3.5 million people died because of British incompetence and sheer callousness. That is what my next book will be about.
But are there not many books on the Bengal famine?
Surely there are. But I want my book to be read widely. It will not be an academic work. I want the book to engage readers emotionally. I have done this with my first book. I want to go further with my next.
What else do you want the book to do?
The book will be meant mostly for Western readers. I want it to start a debate. The British never acknowledged what they did in India. The Germans acknowledged the Holocaust. I would like to see the British coming to terms with their colonial past and acknowledge the harm they have done.