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BOOK REVIEW
Year : 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 173-175

Reaching Out to the Past


Independent Researcher, C/o Kalpavriksh Apt. 5, Sri Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004, India

Correspondence Address:
Pankaj Sekhsaria
Independent Researcher, C/o Kalpavriksh Apt. 5, Sri Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004
India
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009
 


How to cite this article:
Sekhsaria P. Reaching Out to the Past. Conservat Soc 2006;4:173-5

How to cite this URL:
Sekhsaria P. Reaching Out to the Past. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2006 [cited 2019 Jul 23];4:173-5. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2006/4/1/173/55799

Simron Jit Singh and Oliver Lehman, The Nicobar Islands - Cultural Choices in the Aftermath of the Tsunami. Czernin Verlag, 2006, 230pages, EUR 49, ISBN: 3-7076-0078-5



The destruction the tsunami of December 2004 caused in the Nicobar Islands was of such a nature and magnitude that it is difficult to explain. It is difficult to explain because it took away virtually everything from an entire community. What can one say of a community where every single individual is affected in a way that there is almost no semblance of what existed once? It is difficult because an entire people appear to have been left with almost no reference from their past. The past that we otherwise take for granted, suddenly appears to exist no more.

Simron Jit Singh's new book 'The Nicobar Islands - Cultural Choices in the Aftermath of the Tsunami' forces the reader (rather the looker) to question the indestructibility of the past. Can the past be destroyed; is the past forever, it appears to ask. In many ways it also provides the answer, actually two- 'No' and 'Yes'.

No, the book says - the past is not forever and shows graphically the loss that has taken place. If memory is one vector to the past, the tsunami showed how it can be effectively destroyed. Thousands of people, including many elders were taken away en masse in the matter of a few minutes. The entire leadership of entire villages (like on Katchal Island) were washed away by the unprecendented fury of the waves. With them has gone the knowledge and the wisdom of what was, at best, a tenuous connection with the past.

If memory is one connection to the past, the other is the material culture of a people. It did not help that the Nicobari community is primarily a coast dwelling community. Their settlements, made up essentially of thatched dwellings on stilts were always on low lying lands near the coast. Nothing remains now. Everything, every element of their material culture-their houses, their boats, artifacts and objects used in daily life or having ritual and cultural significance, documents, books, papers and photographs-was washed away.

Little remains, it would appear, that could help the people to connect to the past, and that too at a time when the present is precarious and the future extremely uncertain. The entire Nicobari population of nearly 30,000 people lives today in uncomfortable intermediate shelters made of tin, where the struggle is to ensure the basic necessities of life. It is to make sense of this struggle of the present and future that Singh's book provides vital clues - even a framework.

Yes, the book also seems to indicate, that the past, at least elements of it, can be forever. It cannot be destroyed completely. The past does always exist! This book, if nothing else, is undeniable proof of precisely this. It is an in valuable record of a culture and a people who have been devastated like nothing else in living memory-where, perhaps, the future will make sense only in proportion to the connection that can be made with the past. It is a proposition that the author puts forth with extreme caution, not wanting to be seen as influencing the 'cultural choices' the community makes. 'The tsunami', he says in the concluding part of his introduction to the book, 'has taken not only their material possessions, but also their pride and dignity. Some perhaps have a vague memory of what there once was. So how can they build their future upon a past which has no tangible reference, nothing that they can see or experience anymore, and nothing they can draw their energies from? It was to fulfil this need that made me embark upon this book. This book may thus be seen as a window to the past, and for the Nicobarese to realise what they have lost. It is in one way a serenade to the rich cultural heritage of the Nicobarese, and in another a wishful desire that the Nicobarese, on seeing these images, may wish to take some of the elements of their past into the future. In other words', and one wishes his hopes come true, 'I am secretly hoping that the images will touch them deeply and provide them with the necessary energy to negotiate their future in the aftermath of the tsunami'.

'The Nicobar Islands…' is an interestingly done book, rich in visual and with text in two languages-English and German. Not surprising since the book has been published in Austria where Singh presently works as a researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Social Ecology, Faculty for Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Klagenfurt. What stands out about the book however are the pictures. It is, infact, more a book of pictures that are accompanied by text-four short chapters in addition to the foreword and the introduction. The pictures make up nearly 170 pages of this 230 pages book and illustrate various aspects of the community, culture, rituals, and symbols of the Central Nicobars (comprising the islands of Nancowry, Kamorta, Trinket and Katchal). The pictures are an extremely significant contemporary record of the years just preceeding the cataclysmic tsunami. They have been taken by the author during his stay and researches in the islands since he first came here in 1999.

It is perhaps the last chapter "The aftermath - And the meek shall seek the earth" that can be considered the highlight of the book. Singh discusses in this short essay his experience of meeting members of the devastated community in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. There are important insights into the experiences, feelings, fears and hopes of the Nicobari community. There are also sharp comments on the nature of the relief and rehabilitation work carried out by the government agencies and particularly the large number of large relief and aid organisations that came in after the tsunami. The pictures here are a grim record of what the tsunami did-devasted landscapes, pensive human faces, destroyed infrastructure, settlements and rapidly dying coconut plantations that are now submerged in water and the temporary shelters that the community now calls home.

The book, like most publications has its irritants. To begin with-it is clear that its been done in a hurry. There are serious proofing flaws-particularly inexcusable are the occurrence of different spellings-Chowra on one page, Chaura on another; Portifer in one place, Fortifer in another. One feels that the captions for the photographs too could have been better. A valuable addition to the book would have been a few more older, and historical pictures. Presently the book has only five. Another thing that one finds missing, particularly because Singh discusses human-nature relationships, is anything about the environment of the islands. Tectonic activity in the immediate aftermath of December 26, 2004 caused significant subsidence of land in the Nicobar Islands. The islands, like Singh points out, have sunk by an average of six feet, rendering most habitable and cultivable lands here useless. Even a brief note-an environmental snapshot of the islands before and after the tsunami would have added great value to the discussions regarding the possibilities and the future of the rehabilitation process.

All these however do not take away from the central value of the book. Singh is certainly one of the most significant chroniclers of the life and society of the Nicobars in recent times. His first book, 'The Sea of Influence', that was published in 2003 was an outcome of his doctoral work carried out in the University of Lund in Sweden and provides significant information and insights into the historical developments in the Nicobars in the last two and a half centuries.

'The Nicobar Islands - Cultural Choices in the Aftermath of the Tsunami', like his earlier work, is an extremely important contribution. It could be at the same time a record of the past and a window to the future. Whether it ends up being both is something that only time will tell, and as Singh stresses in his book, depends on what the Nicobarese finally decide themselves.




 

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