Amid the euphoric surround sound announcing Achhe Din (“Good Times”) for every Indian courtesy Modi, newspapers recently reported the anointment of Dambaru Sisa, a member of Odisha’s primitive Bonda tribe, as a Biju Janata Dal MLA. “I do not want framed photographs of my people decorating drawing rooms of the rich,” Mr Sisa said. “I do not want people making money from development programmes meant for Bondas.”
The nexus of tribal life and development reminded me of a brush I had with Andaman’s primitive Jarawas 10 years ago. (It was actually during the 2004 tsunami Christmas, when I was vacationing at the pristine beaches of the Andamans – and later at relief camps across the islands – but more on that in a separate post.)
The Jarawas of the Andamans; photo courtesy The Unreal Times
Not much is known about Mr Modi’s views on India’s tribes. But based on my experience with the Jarawas and their relationship with money/development, I am not sure if his Achhe Din paradigm should stretch quite as far as them. And no, I don’t say that as a breast-beating, development-will-ruin-the-tribal-way-of-life-spewing, jhola-type. I say that purely as an anxious middle-class tourist, for whom Jarawa-watching has traditionally been a money’s-worth part of what is otherwise a ridiculously expensive holiday destination.
Here’s an edited excerpt from something I wrote immediately after my 2004 trip that explains my stand. Pardon the mawkishness; I was only 21.
“…The protected territory marked for the Jarawas has the ambience of a safari, so that the tourist sitting in his moving vehicle constantly hopes to “spot” Jarawas as if they were a featured species on Animal Planet. In my own vehicle, at least three cameras were ready to carry back home proud evidences of having seen a “real” Jarawa. At every Jarawa-less winding of the hilly road, my father and my cousin would let out sighs of disappointment. They had had enough of trees and rocks, they now wanted the real thing.
Before entering the territory, forest officials had expressly forbidden us from giving the Jarawas any food or money, or getting too cozy with them. Thus alerted, the word Jarawa invoked several exciting images. Mystery. Animal power. A mythical cannibalistic relationship with the civilised world. A language-less-ness that added to the occult feeling. In other words, a platter full of delicious assumptions of difference. The typical tourist spends money traveling precisely to max out on such difference. Seeing a buck-naked Jarawa is quite the jackpot for him.
(Of course, later in our trip, stranded at a tsunami-hit jetty, we would learn from a forest officer how Jarawa men now hum DDLJ songs and love wearing T-shirts and pants. The officer would also tell us how in his hurry to reach his flooded village, he had to depute a Jarawa youth to man an outpost meant to guard a portion of the Jarawa territory from prying eyes. But at this point of the trip, our innocence was still in tact.)
Sensing my family’s growing restlessness, our driver decided to entertain us with stories of his daily rendezvouses with Jarawa folk on the route. “I can guarantee you will see one today,” he said. “And don’t be bothered by the forest people’s nonsense. Of course you can give money! They know what money is. Just don’t give a badi patti, else they may get pissed off.”
Now for all our eagerness, we were not about to part with a badi patti (100 rupees or more) for the pleasure of Jarawa company. Like all good middle-class tourists, everything we did followed a strict budget. But why would a poor Jarawa not like being given more money?
“They are only familiar with fivers and tenners yet,” the driver explained, “because that’s how much tourists generally give. If you give any more, the buggers think it’s fake money and get very angry. They even attacked a friend’s car a few days ago…”
Sadly then, our mysterious, brutish, animal-like Jarawas were getting civilised. The good thing was, it wasn’t happening fast enough to make people like us redraw their travel budgets.”
PS: We did see a Jarawa that day. I do not have photographs.