Labours of love

Emily looked up at me and smiled her shy, dazzling smile. I might have turned a deep red but was saved from embarrassment by the colour of my skin.

"I was at the market just now, and bought this for you, er, for your family. This is from the fresh stock that arrived yesterday afternoon by the ship from Port Blair."

I handed over a bag containing two large cabbages. Not very fresh-looking, but in these hard times, cabbages had become a delicacy. Many months after the tsunami, which struck the morning after Christmas in 2004, the badly-affected Nicobar Islands were still in disarray. The indigenous coast-dwelling Nicobarese, who made up the majority of the inhabitants, had been bundled into make-shift tin shelters, and relocated further inland from their villages. Vegetables came occasionally from Port Blair, the administrative headquarters of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and a day and night away by ship. Cabbages were the most expensive; they sold in Bompoka for the princely sum of a hundred and twenty rupees a kilo. I had bought nearly three kilos worth. Emily belonged to a large family. I hoped she would be impressed. Ridiculous gift, but these were times of tsunami.

She opened the bag, and overcome by coyness kept looking down at the keyboard. "Thank you!" she said softly. I returned to my desk, satisfied that I'd said it with cabbages, incremental progress from the biscuits I had been sharing thus far. Pretending to look at my computer screen, I gazed at her from the corner of my eyes. She looked enchanting in what she was wearing today: lavender blouse, and red-and-black sarong.

Richard, my man Friday and best friend, arrived. The troika complete, the Bompoka Young People's Social Service League, popularly called Yessel, was in business for the day.

Richard looks pensively out of the boat.

Richard looks pensively out of the boat.
Before the tsunami, Yessel used to organise an annual sports tournament and an annual beauty pageant in Bompoka. The aftermath of the tsunami had the effect of modifying its ideas of social service, and, almost accidentally, turned it into a focal point of humanitarian intervention in an effort to keep track of the activities of NGOs, large and small, that flocked to this little island in the Nicobar archipelago. The NGOs suffered from a problem of plenty: more money than they could spend. Ships arriving from Port Blair carried freshly recruited aid-workers from a kaleidoscope of NGOs desperately seeking to 'intervene,' all scouting around for anything that looked like a problem. One NGO decided that drinking water was scarce; they began assembling massive metal water tanks in three different locations; "the biggest in Asia," the supervisor boasted. But, nobody knew where the water would come from. Another NGO was offering 'livelihoods training.' Ten Nicobarese youth were picked for a fortnight-long carpentry workshop; they were gathered in a little shed downhill from the Yessel office.

A tsunami volunteer, I was one of the NGO ilk myself. A quirk of fate landed me in Bompoka through an NGO in Port Blair with whom I had interned in the summer of 2004, a few months before the tsunami. At Yessel, I was tasked with 'capacity-building': mentoring young Nicobarese men and women in documentation and computers. I was in the process of training the second batch of youngsters. We were all roughly the same age, and got along well. Emily and Richard had been the most diligent of their lot, and made rapid progress. Products of the first batch, they were recruited as Yessel staff, and became my colleagues. But, while the rest of the youngsters tended to treat me as a 'teacher,' and remained reticent, Richard opened his heart to me.

Richard was lovelorn. He was wooing Mildred, a Class XII student of the Bompoka Higher Secondary School, with little to show for his efforts thus far. He lived in Bompoka, and reached the jetty early every morning, patiently waiting for the ferry from Mildred's village to arrive. But, in three months, he had made little headway. Mildred remained noncommittal. He tried his luck again in the evening, at the time of the return ferry. He waited at the foot of the school road as Mildred sashayed down to the jetty, offering him, at most, a brief glance, or, if he was lucky, a little smile, as she hurried to catch her ferry. Richard returned to the Yessel office more often than not, in gloom, his crest fallen face telling the tale.

Today, however, he had a glint in his eye, and carried himself with a peculiar confidence. I caught his eye and looked at him questioningly. He responded with a gentle smile. Suddenly, the short and stout, formidable-looking Nicobarese young man with a knitted brow looked very boyish.

"They've found Kutuk's karyaavaa near Rumjau Village!" he said slowly, the calmness of his voice belying the excitement within.

"Oh?!" my eyebrows rose.

"Yes, Venkatbhai. I heard last evening. They found it in the marsh last week, along the creek that flows through the forest. The incoming tsunami waves carried it deep inside the jungle, and it was caught in the rai-loi reeds there. Nobody goes into that part of the forest except when they are looking for rai-loi to build the roof of a new house. The jungle is haunted by spirits. But the spirits couldn't harm Kutuk!" he ended triumphantly.

And then, catching me by surprise, he added, "I'm going to Rumjau tomorrow evening. Will you come along too, Venkatbhai?"

Kutuk's karyaavaa

Kutuk's karyaavaa had special powers; it could make the person one desired fall in love with you.

Kutuk had been a famous men-lu-aanaa or witch-doctor who lived in Rumjau many years ago. Two factors built the reputation of a witch-doctor, to wit, the accuracy of the diagnosis, and the efficacy of the treatment. The former depended upon correctly identifying the spirit that entered the body of the patient; the latter upon the spells and the medicine that the witch-doctor deployed to render the spirit ineffective. Kutuk's powers went one step further: he could bend the spirits to his will. He was regarded as extremely powerful in his own lifetime. Kutuk could have chosen to use his command over the spirits to produce sickness, cause death, and aggrandise himself. Instead, he used his powers for the commonweal, healing the sick and keeping evil spirits at bay, which fetched him lasting fame. When he died he received the honour of having a life-size likeness carved out of wood. Such wooden statues built in the memory of powerful witch-doctors, called karyaavaa, were propitiated long after the men-lu-aanaa died. There had been quite a few such karyaavaas in the villages around Bompoka. The tsunami carried them all away.

"Kutuk united many couples," Richard had repeatedly mused, "If only his karyaavaa were around my luck would not be what it is."

And now Kutuk's karyaavaa had been found. No wonder Richard was excited!

I peeped through the window into the shed where the carpentry workshop was in progress. The carpentry instructor, Pillai, who had been imported by the NGO from Port Blair, was dozing, head on desk. Four boys were intently at work.

The Nicobarese were clever at wood-work and trying to teach them carpentry was like carrying coals to Newcastle. But they were handicapped by the loss of tools in the tsunami, especially the dao or Burmese axe, which they regarded their inseparable companion. It was the tools that they lacked, not the skills. Six of the ten boys had collected their tool-kits at the workshop and dropped out in boredom. The four that remained paid no heed to Pillai, whose early self-importance quickly gave way to somnolent despair.

My attention was drawn to one of the four who seemed especially gifted. A young man with a quiet grin, he was chipping away at a piece of wood, no longer than his forearm, to resemble the hull of a small-sized canoe, a miniature version of the kind the Nicobarese used when they went fishing.

"Who are you making it for?" I asked him later.

"For no one in particular, Venkatbhai. The thought simply occurred to me."

He called himself Curtly Ambrose. His father had been a huge fan of the Caribbean fast bowler. Ambrose, we called him. He was painfully shy and spoke little. He had lost his parents and siblings in the tsunami but the perpetual grin etched on his face widened every time he was hailed. It was hard not to take a liking to him. Unsurprisingly, the girls doted over him. Ambrose and his wood-working companions joined us at lunchtime every afternoon.

Richard and his proposed visit to Kutuk's karyaavaa were the topic of much banter at lunch today. "Will you steal her clothes and offer them to Kutuk?! How will he know who the girl is otherwise?" Emily ribbed him as everyone broke into peals of laughter.

The Nicobarese are a 'tribe', but their cosmopolitan history defies the conventional patronizing gaze that typecasts 'tribals' as primitive inhabitants of remote geographies. As far back as a thousand years ago, the strategic location of the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal brought to their shores passing ships sailing between the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia. Here, the ships, including perhaps the odd Arab dhow or Chinese junk, halted to renew their supplies of fresh water and food. Journals maintained by European travellers provide vivid accounts of the Nicobarese barter trade with visiting ships – coconuts, chickens, and pigs were exchanged in return for iron tools, cloth and cutlery. The terms of trade were negotiated by polyglot Nicobarese representatives calling themselves 'captain,' and seeking parity with the captain of the ship. The legacy lives on – present-day elected village chiefs who engage with government officials, NGO folks, and the occasional researcher, are called captains.

The Nicobar Islands were secured by the British in the second half of the 19th century. At about the same time, the lubricant properties of coconut oil and its rising demand in rapidly industrialising Europe conferred minor celebrity status on the humble coconut. The Nicobar Islands, with their abundance of coconut palm trees, became the hub of a bustling commodity trade. Traders flocked to the islands from the Maldives and Burma, at times giving rise to violent clashes with the Nicobarese, who resented the traders' grasping tendencies, yet also occasionally intermarrying.

A decade after Indian Independence, the islands were declared a tribal reserve, and travel by outsiders was severely restricted on grounds of safeguarding the cultural integrity of the Nicobarese. The restrictions have had the remarkable effect of enforced seclusion that shrunk the Nicobarese footprint in their own sea of influence. Until, of course, the NGOs arrived in 2005.

The wind lashed our faces as we looked out from the sea at the volcanic hills rising gently to our left. The wooden motor-boat kept to the shallow waters off the shoreline of Kamorta, a large island to Bompoka's southeast. Long stretches of the shore were lined by headless trunks of coconut palm, dead and dying in the salt waters of the tsunami that submerged the coast and formed stagnant pools. The islands had sunk a few metres into the sea, a result of the tectonic processes that triggered the tsunami. Beyond the dying palms, at an elevation, live coconut trees glistened emerald-green in the waning rays of the setting sun. Ejaz, one of our young Nicobarese friends, had coaxed his father into lending his boat for the journey. The sea was choppy, and the agitated waters swirled menacingly in the open sea to our right. Richard's brow was furrowed; Ejaz manned the helm in full concentration. Eventually, the boat made towards the shore and turned into a cove, at the far end of which, slightly uphill, lay the village of Rumjau.

Ejaz cut the engine, and we paddled forward in the twilight. Sudden silence filled the air; a frisson of excitement made me shiver. Richard was tense. My thoughts flew back to Emily. So far, I had regarded Kutuk's karyaavaa as a mere story, an entertaining bit of folklore. But, now that we had almost made it to Rumjau, I began to wonder if the story might be true. My own heart beat faster. The sea had been rough and it had been a risky ride; the turbulence without merged seamlessly with the emotional turmoil within. I glanced at Richard's anxious visage, and found myself ardently wishing that the story might be true. Perhaps the wish was not for Richard's sake alone. Nonetheless, as we drew closer to Rumjau, the houses on the low hill began to mist over in anticipation.

Drops of fresh pig-blood trickled down from Kutuk's upper arms and chest, and stained his brand new pink loin cloth. A thick beaded necklace hung from his neck. Richard respectfully placed a glass of milk-tea in front, next to the kerosene lantern. Kutuk sat cross-legged, and stared downward at the offering laid before him. The wide eyes under the bandanna were uncharacteristic; the Nicobarese were typically slit-eyed. Kutuk's pupils were jet black and dilated; their unblinking exaggeration lent him a fearsome look.

Richard rose respectfully, and returned to the wooden image with his bag. I looked on curiously to see what he would fish out now. Like a magician pulling out rabbits from his hat, Richard had first brought out the loin cloth, and then the bandanna that Kutuk's karyaavaa was wearing. Now, in the beam of Ejaz's powerful torch, he brought out a long-sized school notebook. 'Mildred Herbert, Samaaj Shaastra (Sociology),' the flyleaf announced in Hindi.

"Is that for Kutuk to be able to identify the girl?" I asked.

The elderly Joseph, whose house we were in, nodded vigorously. Kutuk was his ancestor.

Next, Richard slipped out a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his shirt.

"Love letter?"

Richard nodded, trademark gentle smile lighting up his serious face.

"For Kutuk?!" I asked, puzzled.

Everyone laughed. They thought I was joking. I wasn't but the mood lightened.

"For Mildred."

"Let me see it?!" I couldn't control my curiosity.

Richard hesitated. Ejaz said something in Nicobarese which I couldn't understand but it generated more mirth.

Richard unfolded the piece of paper as Ejaz and I crowded around on either side of him. It was a note, only three lines long, and written in chaste Nicobarese Hindi.

Hum tumko bahut pyaar karta. Kya tum humko pyaar karta? Agar pyaar karta to kal humko hituse ped ke paas milo. ("I love you very much. Do you love me? If you do meet me near the hituse tree tomorrow.")

Richard slipped the letter into the notebook, and placed it before Kutuk's karyaavaa. "Don't forget to pick it up in the morning tomorrow," Joseph said.

Dinner was a feast of pork, served in kerosene-light. The pig had been slaughtered as an offering to Kutuk. Richard, who could not afford a pig of his own, borrowed one of Joseph's, promising to repay him in the future.

Joseph had lost his son and daughter-in-law in the tsunami. They used to live in another village further up the Kamorta coast. Joseph had adopted their surviving orphaned son. "My grandson is gone to Bompoka; he will be back in a few days," he remarked, as we sat up talking into the night. Joseph graphically described to me the horror of the morning when the tsunami struck. The earthquake happened first, and the earth shook for several minutes. Then the seawaters gradually withdrew more than a kilometre from the shore, as if being sucked in by a gigantic creature at the bottom of the sea. All of a sudden, the tsunami had risen like a massive fortress wall of water, and washed swiftly shore, swallowing all that fell in its path. Rumjau had been lucky because it was located at an elevation, the crescent-shaped cove offering another layer of protection.

Ejaz and Richard had long gone to bed. As I turned in under the mosquito net, the sceptic inside me could no longer restrain itself.

"Joseph Uncle, do you think Kutuk will unite Richard with Mildred?" I asked, trying to find the right words so as not to appear disrespectful.

Joseph's response was mysterious, tangential, "Who can read a men-lu-aanaa's mind? Only another men-lu-aanaa. But there are no more men-lu-aanaa left now."

I woke up next morning feeling overwhelmed. The pangs of yearning gnawed me from within. Maybe I could make an offering to Kutuk, even if a small one perhaps? After all, one could do with all the luck one could get in matters of the heart.

I had not disclosed my sentiments for Emily to Richard (or anyone else). In the first place, I was self-conscious of my status as a 'teacher,' and the code of rectitude that came with it. Besides, I had grown aware of the tension between the Nicobarese and non-tribal settlers. The Nicobarese did not like their women marrying outside the community. They argued that non-tribal outsiders lured Nicobarese women and married them as a stratagem to secure a toe-hold in the islands, and then quickly went on to acquire land and set themselves up in business. The Nicobarese had even gone to court seeking eviction of non-tribal settlers. Making public my liking for a Nicobarese woman was fraught with potentially grave consequences.

Ejaz had slipped out to ready the boat and Joseph had disappeared early into the forest. As Richard and I sipped our cups of morning tea, all set to leave back to Bompoka, I asked, as if in jest, "Do you think Kutuk would help if I want him to make a girl fall in love with me?"

Richard remained silent for a while.

"Maybe Kutuk helps only Nicobarese folks," he said slowly.

I was stung to the quick, and spoke no more.

The office was empty, and the lull at work seemed to mirror the stifling calm of the sea. It was mid-December, and my colleagues had dispersed for a long Christmas break. Richard was little to be seen of late, immersed as he was in a state of bliss in the company of his girlfriend. I looked out of the window at the placid waters beyond the jetty, the floating buoys barely bobbing up and down. After we returned from Ramjau, my fortunes had dipped in parallel with the rise in Richard's. Emily grew increasingly withdrawn and quiet, almost as if she was deliberately seeking to cut down on conversation. I walked the tightrope of not letting my thoughts show but was barely able to contain the growing insecurity, the gut-wrenching anxiety. Today, the deathly calm outside heightened the maelstrom within.

The breeze kissed our faces as the motor-boat from Bompoka lunged southwards towards Rumjau. The boat and boatman were different. The sea was still, and we made rapid progress. Powered by hope, expectation, suspense I could almost hear my heart thudding over the loud, rasping noise of the boat engine. I looked down at my bag. It contained the purchases of the morning: a bandanna and loin cloth, but also something more precious: a keychain belonging to Emily, which she had absent-mindedly left behind in the Yessel office.

It was still daylight when we reached. I had sent word ahead to Joseph that I would arrive today, although I did not mention the purpose. I climbed up the steps to his dome-shaped house on stilts, one of the few Nicobarese houses that had been rebuilt in the traditional style after the tsunami. Halfway up the stilts, I peered inside. My eyes squarely met Kutuk's fierce stare. I started, and almost slipped off the footrest. I hadn't realised it in the dark the last time but the karyaavaa was positioned to face the entrance to the house, almost as if keeping a watchful eye on every visitor.

Doris, Joseph's wife, greeted me with a broad smile, showing that I was expected, and then quickly disappeared. I seated myself on the floor to wait for Joseph.

A few minutes later a babble of voices sounded, strangely familiar, and grew near.

Emily entered the room excitedly carrying a glass of tea in her hands. "Welcome, Venkatbhai!" she exclaimed happily, handing me the glass.

My heart skipped a beat. Glory be to Kutuk! But what was Emily doing here in Rumjau?

Before I could ask another familiar figure followed. Curtly Ambrose was grinning from ear to ear.

"Grandfather has gone into the forest. He will be back soon."

The grandson who had been away in Bompoka.

Emily turned and spoke rapidly to him in Nicobarese. Ambrose swiftly knelt down to a bag lying on the floor, dipped his hands inside, and produced something gingerly.

It was a magnificent miniature model of a Nicobarese canoe, called a hodi, complete with outrigger, perfectly balanced, and intricately decorated at its two sharp, curved ends.

A tsunami-displaced Nicobarese youth in a relief camp makes a small life-size canoe or hodi, which, when complete, will be fitted with an outrigger to help balance it in the sea

A tsunami-displaced Nicobarese youth in a relief camp makes a small life-size canoe or hodi, which, when complete, will be fitted with an outrigger to help balance it in the sea
Ambrose bent down to me as I sat cross-legged on the floor. Stretching out his hands, he said, "This is for you, Venkatbhai."

"For me?"

"Yes, Venkatbhai," Emily responded before Ambrose could react, "I wanted him to give it to you. Do you like it?" she asked eagerly.

The artisanship could not have been more exquisite. I turned it around in my hands, regarding it with awe. It was a labour of love, very far from a mere piece of carpentry.

It took me a while to find my voice.

"It is extremely beautiful. I love it. Thank you very much!" I looked up at Emily and Ambrose to find them beaming, the pleasure radiating from their being.

Emily looked at Ambrose and then at me. Suddenly turning coy, she said, "Venkatbhai..." Her voice trailed.

"What is it Emily?"

"We're getting married after Christmas. You'll come for our wedding, won't you?"

I turned the canoe around slowly in my hands once more. "A labour of love," I whispered softly to myself.

(This is a work of fiction based on experiences as an aid-worker in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. As a PhD candidate, I (R. Venkat Ramanujam) am currently researching transforming adivasi relationships with the environment in eastern Madhya Pradesh.)
The illustration of the karyaavaa used in the story is based on a photograph taken by Simron Jit Singh, anthropologist, and author of 'The Nicobar Islands: Cultural choices in the aftermath of the tsunami.