Who are you calling 'backward'?

Nov 26, 2018, 05:44 IST | Aditya Sinha

If the Sentinelese were to stumble upon mainland India, would they really think us progressive, with all our prejudices and modern trappings?

Who are you calling 'backward'?
A file pic of a Sentinelese aiming his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter

Aditya SinhaThe Sentinelese of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are in the news after they shot with bow and arrow an American missionary around 10 days ago. Breaking Indian law, he approached their off-limits island to try and convert them. He paid fishermen R25,000 to be taken there, a price too cheap for any human life. Americans have grieved over the missionary's loss and some Indians are intrigued why the Sentinelese are kept isolated from civilisation and modernity. "What's the point in keeping them backward?" the wife asked.

Imagine a Sentinelese travelling 1,100 km to the Indian mainland. She might visit a mall or a eatery after her long journey. She would be foxed by the uncommunicativeness of the people around her, all hypnotised by a funny screen in their hands. She might gape at the overclothed women who paradoxically are covering their bodies while trying to make it sexually appealing. She might be scared by noisy and powerful motor vehicles, meant to shorten distances but all paralysed by traffic jams. She might laugh at the way inside their huts, mainland families are glued to the TV depicting garish families in incessant distress.

Our Sentinelese visitor might find bizarre one lakh people gathering at the grimy and crowded "advanced" town of Ayodhya, demanding a shrine with the lingering threat of violence. She might wonder what the fuss was — her people worship things as they are, paying obeisance to animist spirits as and when the occasion arises, without the bother of an argument. She would probably laugh at the tribes gathered in Ayodhya using the bow and arrow on their pendants and leaflets while not looking as if they could wield a proper bow and arrow that even her tribe's children might. And they call her a savage.

A selfie by deceased American missionary John Allen Chau, taken on his most recent trip to India. Pics/AFP, John Allen Chau's Instagram
A selfie by deceased American missionary John Allen Chau, taken on his most recent trip to India. Pics/AFP, John Allen Chau's Instagram

She would wonder about the tribe leaders on the mainland. Back home, the wisest (and usually the eldest) of the tribe would advise the others on dealing with crises like an approaching tsunami; years of living with nature would give them the warning that modern technology still cannot; otherwise, the wise one would leave the rest alone to hunt for food, procreate, or teach their children the infinite mysteries of their island.

On the mainland, however, she would find that tribe leaders are far from the wisest of their people; and usually they are a fat lot with unhealthy obsessions. At the northernmost point of India, farthest from North Sentinel, the portly tribe leader is surrounded by the majestic natural beauty of snow-peaked mountains; yet he is to be found in his elaborate hut, worried that his meal preparer is on holiday and that his fax machine, which eats and spits out paper, is suffering from indigestion.

She'll find that the biggest tribal leader on the mainland — the leader of all tribe leaders, including her own — is wandering around from place to place, addressing community meetings and spending his time abusing other people. It would shock her, considering that her people venerate the departed lest their spirits unleash retribution. Then she might laugh — the leader of all tribal leaders himself is abusing other people's grandmothers and great-grandfathers, but then begins to weep copiously that others are attacking his 90-year-old mother. Though the Sentinelese woman is a "savage", she recognises crocodile tears when she sees them.

Our visitor would need to be careful. If she visits Mumbai, for instance, she could easily end up being a domestic help or a sex worker. Living in someone's house and doing their menial work is bad enough; it is worse when they ration out your food in miserly proportions, as is having stinky men climb on top of you, one after the another, for a fistful of meaningless paper. In her national capital, it's even worse: if she manages to elude sexual assault, her dark skin would no doubt attract accusations of cannibalism, as happened last week with two Tanzanian women (police found their presumed victim, a neighbourhood boy, alive and well).

Civilisation does have its charms: the allure of music, something she recognises and can immediately fall into harmony with; or the fact that the Americans have sent a mission, not a missionary, to that point of light in the sky known as Mars, where it will dig five metres beneath the surface in search of scientific treasure. Humanity has gone deep into its heart and high above its sky. Yet would she find it enough of a trade-off for the "backward" thing that mainlanders so obviously crave: freedom? Freedom of movement, freedom from disease, freedom from pollution, freedom from violence, freedom from stress, freedom from anxiety versus freedom from urban blight and the modern condition. Her universe may be an isolated and tiny, hilly island, but it can be studied over a lifetime, as intensely as the Universe itself.

Aditya Sinha's latest book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, co-written with AS Dulat and Asad Durrani, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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