A writer speaks

Why this young writer switched from campus romances to the Jarawas of Andamans

What does it take to shift a writer's attention from a successful commercial genre to fiction featuring an endangered tribe?

One of my favourite films of all times is Twelve Angry Men (1957). A group of twelve jurors debate over the fate of a young boy who’s come to trial for a murder. Each of them views the situation through a lens of their own life experiences, bringing in their prejudices – and it takes all the eloquence of one of the jurors to enable the others to realize as much.

Sometimes it takes a momentous event to understand one’s own perspective and change it.

In 2013, I published my fourth romance novel, which broke into the top three and stayed there for 10 consecutive weeks. I was secure in having a steady and growing readership for the kind of books I wrote, and life seemed sorted, at least financially, so long as I kept writing in the same genre.

But around the time this book was released, I went on a solo vacation to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and saw something there which would change the way I look at writing. It made me deep-dive into a subject very different from anything I had written about before.

I had a day in Port Blair before travelling to Havelock Island, which is much prettier. Asking people about what I could do or see, I was told by a tourist guide told me about the Jarawas, the native tribe which was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world until recently.

As a result, I learnt, the Jarawas had remained in a shielded culture of their own, with little being known of their language, lives and traditions.The curious kid in me was intrigued.

I was told that there was a trip to Limestone Caves, which took the bus went through the Jarawa Reserve, a stretch of land put aside for the 400-and-odd members of the tribe. I decided to take the trip the next morning, even though it meant that I’d be spending a shorter period in Havelock.

Back in 2013, data services on my phone were restricted. Else I would have had the chance to read up more about the Jarawas. But on the bus I heard someone utter the phrase “human safari”, a phrase which I would hear several times more in the months to come. That was the first time I realised that, by going on this day-long trip, I was participating in something that I don’t approve of.

Shock discoveries

The racist connotations of this ride hit me slowly, but they hit me hard. The driver remained nonchalant when we did see the Jarawas, unlike the tourists on the bus. The conductor told me that later that even recently people would make them stop the bus to give biscuits and bananas to the Jarawas.

According to the conductor, people would take pictures and post them on social media as though the Jarawas were rare animals. When we reached the caves, it was obvious that my co-passengers were far more interested in the exotic quality of the Jarawas than in geology.

I decided to cancel my trip to Havelock and stay in Port Blair to find out more. And the more I got to know, the more I felt for the Jarawas. There were stories of sexual exploitation, like a feather in one’s cap. One man joked, ‘Would sex with them get you accused of bestiality?’ There were rumours of a child born from a rape.

I realised that, just like the twelve jurors, everybody viewed the Jarawa situation through their own perspective on life. I hadn’t gone prepared, and it was difficult to meet officials in that short trip, but I tried to speak to locals and tourists.

Some believed there was nothing wrong with putting the Jarawas on display and making videos for commerce as this didn’t affect them negatively. Another person gave me numbers on the land allocation per capita to the tribe, and questioned the decision in the context of the large numbers of the homeless in the Andamans.

It was evident that there was a strong nexus between politicians and entrepreneurs, seeking to mainstream the Jarawas for mostly commercial motives. One of the tourists I met was from Ranchi; she told me how her own ancestors from the Korwa tribe had seen massive relocation and numerous deaths in the process.

Back in Delhi, I began to read about endangered tribes, discovering how they were being relocated so that the land that was rightfully theirs could be put to commercial use. From Sophie Griggs at the London-based NGO Survival International – one of the largest organisations working in this area – I learnt things that opened by eyes dramatically. I received blow-by-blow accounts of what had happened not only with the Jarawas but with other isolated tribes around the world.

Making a choice

So here was my dilemma. In what seemed to be an older life already, I used to be

a writer of romances, with a following of loyalists who would buy my books. But now the writer in me was deeply interested in something quite different, something I really wanted to write about, though I had no idea whether there was a readership for it. I realised that I would have to do my own bit of “literary activism” here.

The MBA in me protested, but the writer won.

I decided do three things. First, go back to the Andamans to find out more. I went on to spend a month in the area.

Second, go to London to meet the wonderful people at Survival International and understand the issue better.

And third, write a book, trying my best to present all sides of the picture.

I’ve spent the last three years gathering more information, working on this novel. As I wrote, I spent hours wondering what my own stand was. At times I thought that a referendum among the Jarawas is a good solution.

But how meaningful is a referendum when the people going to vote are not adequately informed about what they’re getting into? There has been no known evidence that the Jarawas have a leader who can take, or help the people take, a decision. The tribe deserves the right to choose whether to join the mainstream or not.

All I know is that any process has to be slow and thought through. But I’m not sure I know what the process should be. The mystery remains.

Sachin Garg is a novelist and publisher.

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