Labours of Love: Part One

Written by R. Venkat Ramanujam

Part 1 of 2

Emily looked up at me and smiled her shy, dazzling smile. I might have turned a deep red but was saved from embarrassment by the colour of my skin.

“I was at the market just now, and bought this for you, er, for your family. This is from the fresh stock that arrived yesterday afternoon by the ship from Port Blair.”

I handed over a bag containing two large cabbages. Not very fresh-looking, but in these hard times, cabbages had become a delicacy. Many months after the tsunami, which struck the morning after Christmas in 2004, the badly-affected Nicobar Islands were still in disarray. The indigenous coast-dwelling Nicobarese, who made up the majority of the inhabitants, had been bundled into make-shift tin shelters, and relocated further inland from their villages. Vegetables came occasionally from Port Blair, the administrative headquarters of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and a day and night away by ship. Cabbages were the most expensive; they sold in Bompoka for the princely sum of a hundred and twenty rupees a kilo. I had bought nearly three kilos worth. Emily belonged to a large family. I hoped she would be impressed. Ridiculous gift, but these were times of tsunami.

She opened the bag, and overcome by coyness kept looking down at the keyboard. “Thank you!” she said softly. I returned to my desk, satisfied that I’d said it with cabbages, incremental progress from the biscuits I had been sharing thus far. Pretending to look at my computer screen, I gazed at her from the corner of my eyes. She looked enchanting in what she was wearing today: lavender blouse, and red-and-black sarong.

Richard, my man Friday and best friend, arrived. The troika complete, the Bompoka Young People’s Social Service League, popularly called Yessel, was in business for the day.

Before the tsunami, Yessel used to organise an annual sports tournament and an annual beauty pageant in Bompoka. The aftermath of the tsunami had the effect of modifying its ideas of social service, and, almost accidentally, turned it into a focal point of humanitarian intervention in an effort to keep track of the activities of NGOs, large and small, that flocked to this little island in the Nicobar archipelago. The NGOs suffered from a problem of plenty: more money than they could spend. Ships arriving from Port Blair carried freshly recruited aid-workers from a kaleidoscope of NGOs desperately seeking to ‘intervene,’ all scouting around for anything that looked like a problem. One NGO decided that drinking water was scarce; they began assembling massive metal water tanks in three different locations; “the biggest in Asia,” the supervisor boasted. But, nobody knew where the water would come from. Another NGO was offering ‘livelihoods training.’ Ten Nicobarese youth were picked for a fortnight-long carpentry workshop; they were gathered in a little shed downhill from the Yessel office.

A tsunami volunteer, I was one of the NGO ilk myself. A quirk of fate landed me in Bompoka through an NGO in Port Blair with whom I had interned in the summer of 2004, a few months before the tsunami. At Yessel, I was tasked with ‘capacity-building’: mentoring young Nicobarese men and women in documentation and computers. I was in the process of training the second batch of youngsters. We were all roughly the same age, and got along well. Emily and Richard had been the most diligent of their lot, and made rapid progress. Products of the first batch, they were recruited as Yessel staff, and became my colleagues. But, while the rest of the youngsters tended to treat me as a ‘teacher,’ and remained reticent, Richard opened his heart to me.

Richard was lovelorn. He was wooing Mildred, a Class XII student of the Bompoka Higher Secondary School, with little to show for his efforts thus far. He lived in Bompoka, and reached the jetty early every morning, patiently waiting for the ferry from Mildred’s village to arrive. But, in three months, he had made little headway. Mildred remained noncommittal. He tried his luck again in the evening, at the time of the return ferry. He waited at the foot of the school road as Mildred sashayed down to the jetty, offering him, at most, a brief glance, or, if he was lucky, a little smile, as she hurried to catch her ferry. Richard returned to the Yessel office more often than not, in gloom, his crest fallen face telling the tale.

AYRN Pic 01 Mildred waits for the return ferry
Mildred waits for the return ferry

Today, however, he had a glint in his eye, and carried himself with a peculiar confidence. I caught his eye and looked at him questioningly. He responded with a gentle smile. Suddenly, the short and stout, formidable-looking Nicobarese young man with a knitted brow looked very boyish.

“They’ve found Kutuk’s karyaavaa near Rumjau Village!” he said slowly, the calmness of his voice belying the excitement within.

“Oh?!” my eyebrows rose.

“Yes, Venkatbhai. I heard last evening. They found it in the marsh last week, along the creek that flows through the forest. The incoming tsunami waves carried it deep inside the jungle, and it was caught in the rai-loi reeds there. Nobody goes into that part of the forest except when they are looking for rai-loi to build the roof of a new house. The jungle is haunted by spirits. But the spirits couldn’t harm Kutuk!” he ended triumphantly.

And then, catching me by surprise, he added, “I’m going to Rumjau tomorrow evening. Will you come along too, Venkatbhai?”

Kutuk’s karyaavaa had special powers; it could make the person one desired fall in love with you.

Kutuk had been a famous men-lu-aanaa or witch-doctor who lived in Rumjau many years ago. Two factors built the reputation of a witch-doctor, to wit, the accuracy of the diagnosis, and the efficacy of the treatment. The former depended upon correctly identifying the spirit that entered the body of the patient; the latter upon the spells and the medicine that the witch-doctor deployed to render the spirit ineffective. Kutuk’s powers went one step further: he could bend the spirits to his will. He was regarded as extremely powerful in his own lifetime. Kutuk could have chosen to use his command over the spirits to produce sickness, cause death, and aggrandise himself. Instead, he used his powers for the commonweal, healing the sick and keeping evil spirits at bay, which fetched him lasting fame. When he died he received the honour of having a life-size likeness carved out of wood. Such wooden statues built in the memory of powerful witch-doctors, called karyaavaa, were propitiated long after the men-lu-aanaa died. There had been quite a few such karyaavaas in the villages around Bompoka. The tsunami carried them all away.

“Kutuk united many couples,” Richard had repeatedly mused, “If only his karyaavaa were around my luck would not be what it is.”

And now Kutuk’s karyaavaa had been found. No wonder Richard was excited!

I peeped through the window into the shed where the carpentry workshop was in progress. The carpentry instructor, Pillai, who had been imported by the NGO from Port Blair, was dozing, head on desk. Four boys were intently at work.

The Nicobarese were clever at wood-work and trying to teach them carpentry was like carrying coals to Newcastle. But they were handicapped by the loss of tools in the tsunami, especially the dao or Burmese axe, which they regarded their inseparable companion. It was the tools that they lacked, not the skills. Six of the ten boys had collected their tool-kits at the workshop and dropped out in boredom. The four that remained paid no heed to Pillai, whose early self-importance quickly gave way to somnolent despair.

My attention was drawn to one of the four who seemed especially gifted. A young man with a quiet grin, he was chipping away at a piece of wood, no longer than his forearm, to resemble the hull of a small-sized canoe, a miniature version of the kind the Nicobarese used when they went fishing.

“Who are you making it for?” I asked him later.

“For no one in particular, Venkatbhai. The thought simply occurred to me.”

He called himself Curtly Ambrose. His father had been a huge fan of the Caribbean fast bowler. Ambrose, we called him. He was painfully shy and spoke little. He had lost his parents and siblings in the tsunami but the perpetual grin etched on his face widened every time he was hailed. It was hard not to take a liking to him. Unsurprisingly, the girls doted over him. Ambrose and his wood-working companions joined us at lunchtime every afternoon.

Richard and his proposed visit to Kutuk’s karyaavaa were the topic of much banter at lunch today. “Will you steal her clothes and offer them to Kutuk?! How will he know who the girl is otherwise?” Emily ribbed him as everyone broke into peals of laughter.

The Nicobarese are a ‘tribe’, but their cosmopolitan history defies the conventional patronizing gaze that typecasts ‘tribals’ as primitive inhabitants of remote geographies. As far back as a thousand years ago, the strategic location of the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal brought to their shores passing ships sailing between the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia. Here, the ships, including perhaps the odd Arab dhow or Chinese junk, halted to renew their supplies of fresh water and food. Journals maintained by European travellers provide vivid accounts of the Nicobarese barter trade with visiting ships – coconuts, chickens, and pigs were exchanged in return for iron tools, cloth and cutlery. The terms of trade were negotiated by polyglot Nicobarese representatives calling themselves ‘captain,’ and seeking parity with the captain of the ship. The legacy lives on – present-day elected village chiefs who engage with government officials, NGO folks, and the occasional researcher, are called captains.

The Nicobar Islands were secured by the British in the second half of the 19th century. At about the same time, the lubricant properties of coconut oil and its rising demand in rapidly industrialising Europe conferred minor celebrity status on the humble coconut. The Nicobar Islands, with their abundance of coconut palm trees, became the hub of a bustling commodity trade. Traders flocked to the islands from the Maldives and Burma, at times giving rise to violent clashes with the Nicobarese, who resented the traders’ grasping tendencies, yet also occasionally intermarrying.

A decade after Indian Independence, the islands were declared a tribal reserve, and travel by outsiders was severely restricted on grounds of safeguarding the cultural integrity of the Nicobarese. The restrictions have had the remarkable effect of enforced seclusion that shrunk the Nicobarese footprint in their own sea of influence. Until, of course, the NGOs arrived in 2005.

The wind lashed our faces as we looked out from the sea at the volcanic hills rising gently to our left. The wooden motor-boat kept to the shallow waters off the shoreline of Kamorta, a large island to Bompoka’s southeast. Long stretches of the shore were lined by headless trunks of coconut palm, dead and dying in the salt waters of the tsunami that submerged the coast and formed stagnant pools. The islands had sunk a few metres into the sea, a result of the tectonic processes that triggered the tsunami. Beyond the dying palms, at an elevation, live coconut trees glistened emerald-green in the waning rays of the setting sun. Ejaz, one of our young Nicobarese friends, had coaxed his father into lending his boat for the journey. The sea was choppy, and the agitated waters swirled menacingly in the open sea to our right. Richard’s brow was furrowed; Ejaz manned the helm in full concentration. Eventually, the boat made towards the shore and turned into a cove, at the far end of which, slightly uphill, lay the village of Rumjau.

AYRN Pic 02 Richard looks out pensively from the boat
Richard looks out pensively from the boat

Ejaz cut the engine, and we paddled forward in the twilight. Sudden silence filled the air; a frisson of excitement made me shiver. Richard was tense. My thoughts flew back to Emily. So far, I had regarded Kutuk’s karyaavaa as a mere story, an entertaining bit of folklore. But, now that we had almost made it to Rumjau, I began to wonder if the story might be true. My own heart beat faster. The sea had been rough and it had been a risky ride; the turbulence without merged seamlessly with the emotional turmoil within. I glanced at Richard’s anxious visage, and found myself ardently wishing that the story might be true. Perhaps the wish was not for Richard’s sake alone. Nonetheless, as we drew closer to Rumjau, the houses on the low hill began to mist over in anticipation.

(to be continued — Part 2 can be read here)

About the Author:

This is a work of fiction based on experiences as an aid-worker in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The illustration of the karyaavaa used in the story is based on a photograph taken by Simron Jit Singh, anthropologist, and author of ‘The Nicobar Islands: Cultural choices in the aftermath of the tsunami‘. As a PhD candidate, I am currently researching transforming Adivasi relationships with the environment in eastern Madhya Pradesh.

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