Death in paradise
Aspirational travel, a booming industry and culture, is often based on this understanding of the world passively, innocently waiting for us to sample its generous delights
Mumbai commuters might remember seeing this billboard on the Western Express Highway a few weeks ago. An advertisement for an airline, it asked: does the world feel sad when you don't explore it? How deftly this question turns the world into a languishing maiden, sitting disconsolate with her head on her knees, asking, "Tum kab aaoge?" (when will you come?) of a migrant husband. Aspirational travel, a booming industry and culture, is often based on this understanding of the world passively, innocently waiting for us to sample its generous delights.
The death of a zealous American at the hands of indigenous people when he forced himself on North Sentinel Island in the Andamans, in order to 'enlighten' them with his missionary zeal, lays bare some of these understandings of travel — that, with some places, it is not they who welcome or invite us (obviously we never think so of the Western world with its humiliating visa processes), but we, who do them a favour by visiting them. We imbue them with meaning, rather than have our repository of meanings enriched and challenged by them.
The Andamans are hauntingly beautiful. The ocean's primeval pull, the brooding mangroves, a sense of being close to the beginning of life, pervades your senses. But, that beauty is indeed haunted, the air full of ghosts, and a bloody history of invasion. The islands, home to several groups of indigenous people for millennia, were first infiltrated by the British in the late 1700s. In 1857, they built a penal colony to jail Indian freedom fighters and revolutionaries. All of this brought diseases that killed large numbers of the indigenous population.
A visit to the Circular Jail in Port Blair will tell you the history of how jailed revolutionaries were tortured. But, little commemorates the history of how indigenous people were hunted and killed. How first, the British, and then the Indian, governments used the islands to first house convicts and then settle refugees post the Bangladesh war, without any permission or negotiation on the islands. How the building of the Andaman Trunk Road, right through the Jarawa land, and now, the possible building of a railway through the Jarawa reserve, has happened at the cost of Jarawa lives and life-systems.
The Greater Andamanese tribe was, in fact, betrayed by an Indian prisoner, who escaped, married among them and then ratted them out when they planned an attack on the British, in exchange for a pardon. A plaque commemorates the 'brave' aboriginal people who died fighting the British, subsuming them in the story of Indian freedom, when it's a somewhat different history.In his column in The Guardian, George Monbiot criticised nature documentarians such as David Attenborough for presenting nature as a pristine Eden in their films, eliding that climate change and human invasion severely threaten the world's ecology.
A recent Buzzfeed article proclaimed Auroville as a bona fide paradise, flagging off a new genre — one might call it new-age history — in which the tussles over land are described as being healed by the land. Magic moments. Travel today can sometimes feel like the hook-up culture of conquest: non-commital, self-focussed, moving on to the next destination. Consent, that word of the moment, does not however seem to be big in this lexicon, whose root language is colonialism and conquest.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning, Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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