THE HIGH GROUND
What we have lost
Dwindling numbers of Jarawa live in the Andamans, an archipelago of thick jungle and lovely beaches. Rare saltwater crocs lurk backwater mangroves. In the year 2000 I visited the islands, wanting to snorkel. But the coral reefs I saw were dull, bleached wastelands.
Jarawa are closer to African in appearance and gene than Asian sub-continental, and how they got to these islands is a mystery lost in time. Signs up the islands’ Trunk Road said, Don’t feed the Jarawa.
That's one way of enforcing what Nehru, a founder of independent India, believed about such people who don’t ‘sit in stock-exchanges, shout at each other, and think themselves civilized.’ To interfere with their way of life, he thought, ' was not for the state to do, 'but to help them live it ... to grow according to their genius and tradition.'
A policeman rode shotgun on the bus that took us up the Trunk Road of Middle Andaman, apparently to protect us from the Jarawa
One could lazily toss the terms ‘backward’ and ‘backwater’ quite liberally about the Andamans. Ruled directly from New Delhi, by the turn of this century its capital, Port Blair, still had no internet connection.
The town has a colonial-era prison-now-museum that once held freedom fighters. Currently, the Andamans’ best known captive population is its elephants.
They’re seen on nature documentaries doing their near-submerged swims through aquamarine sea, breathing through periscoped trunks. In the absence of machinery they slave from island-to-island, shifting ship-to-shore, and vica-versa, logs felled of the Andamans’ ancient forests.
Our time camped on the jungle-fringed beach of an island uninhabited by humans was interrupted by the first of this century’s monsoons. It blew over, chasing us from the beach.
I sat out the rain at nearby Aerial Bay. Playing on grainy black-and-white small screens at chai shops was cricket from Sharjah. I also watched an elephant at work.
Monstrous and ponderous work it was, shifting, lifting and positioning each tree trunk. As her legs swished the estuarine sewage and sludge of Aerial Bay, her vertebrae visibly strained through her skin. Between manoeuvres she was allowed to rest, and she wallowed in the shallows. After ten minutes or so a mahout, her controller perched on her shoulders with a hooked spike, would call her back to task. At night the elephant was chained by its foot to a stake.
In December 2004, it is said, just before the huge earthquake that struck some thousand kilometres away just off Sumatra, elephants like her broke their chains. They took to the high-ground.
The day before captive elephants at a tourist jungle-ride outfit on the islands are said to have stamped restlessly and resisted going down to the shore.
The theory goes that particular sound-waves, p-waves, travelling much faster than ground waves, are detectable to some animals. Maybe the elephants had picked up the most profound initial shiftings near the Earth’s core.
But the day before? That’s deep.
The quake hit the Andamans so strongly the archipelago is said to have changed shape. When the waters of the resulting tsunami subsided, remains of gnarled coral reefs now tilted, stuck out the surface.
The Indian government scrambled to respond to an event which cost hundreds of thousands of human lives. Eventually a coast-guard probe to Andamanese coastal villages found Jarawa and Onge settlements devastated, with no signs of life.
But inland a few days later there was contact with some Jarawa. They had interesting news. Few of their people had been harmed, they said, surprised by the question. Didn’t everyone know that when ground shakes, head for high-ground?
Similarly on Simeulue, the island closest to the epicentre of that, the third largest quake in recently recorded history, although vast tracts got flooded, only six out of the island’s seventy thousand human inhabitants were killed.
Footage of the disaster shows the fishermen, and the Asian and European and American tourists, among whom were probably stock-brokers and people in engineering, actuarial science and law. Their experience until then was mainly of modern cities. Citadels no longer designed to keep enemies out, but rather nature at bay. Most of them are staring, staring out at the receding sea.
Often, I’ve wondered, what would I have done? Probably gone forward like some others did to try scoop up trapped fish flapping here and there, and to deliver them back into the withdrawing tide that was feeding the mounting white walls of rolling-in water on the horizon. Which strikes me as emblematic of the Anthropocene's looming catastrophe. And how my walking out to help a few fish is motif of a belief that plastic-recycling, veganism and travelling around by bicycle can possibly make any difference. 'The foolish extravagance,' James Lovelock called it, 'of romantic Northern idealogues.'
Some say that the Andamanese knew to save themselves by moving to high ground because of ancient lore. Learned over thousands of years existing close to the Ring of Fire, it told that deluge can follow earthquakes.
Other sources believe the skittish flightiness of non-human animals was their cue to move to safety.
Either way, such an intuition of tectonics saved lives. While many tourists with sounder theoretical understanding of continental drift, among whom are some who come to view the Andamanese as an underdeveloped relic of humanity, stare on.
by Nicholas Ashby