‘What has gone on in the past looks like… a dream’: Aging anthropologist in India filled with regret
In an undated handout photo, T.N. Pandit, centre, with members of the Jarawa tribe, who are visiting a ship anchored off their land in the 1980s. Pandit, an anthropologist who studied indigenous groups and coaxed them into contact with outsiders, now agrees that the Jarawa people have been damaged by such exposure.
NEW DELHI — At 82, anthropologist T.N. Pandit passes his days in the gentle occupations of old age: poetry, a Buddhist study circle, a daily walk in the park. It is rare for anyone to ask him about the years he spent with the hunter-gatherer tribes of the Andaman Islands. Only with difficulty can he locate a single copy of the slender book he wrote about that time.
Somewhere in a drawer, though, there are photographs, capturing Pandit as he made contact with some of the world’s most isolated people.
In these photographs, faded and curled with age, his face wears an expression of more or less pure joy.
Pandit, the pale-skinned son of a Kashmiri professor, reaches to pass a coconut to a group of naked, dark-skinned young men who have waded waist-deep in water to greet him. He sits companionably beside a dark-skinned young woman, whose hand rests casually on his thigh. Film shot in 1974 shows him — a reserved Brahmin — dancing exuberantly with a bare-breasted Jarawa woman.
Anthropologist T.N. Pandit at his home in New Delhi, April 6, 2017. Pandit and his colleagues spent more than two decades persuading the indigenous Jarawa and Sentinelese tribes to mingle peacefully with the Indian settlers who surrounded them, which he now agrees hurt the Jarawa people and their culture.
Poras Chaudhary/The New York Times
It took Pandit and his colleagues more than two decades to persuade the tribes known as the Jarawa and Sentinelese to lay down their bows and arrows and mingle peacefully with the Indian settlers who surrounded them. The process was grindingly slow, involving trips into remote jungle areas to leave gifts for people who would not show themselves. In each case, though, there was an exhilarating breakthrough.
In India’s Andaman Islands, these encounters occurred two centuries after indigenous populations in the United States and Australia had been devastated by disease and addiction, leaving no doubt of the dangers of unregulated contact. Pandit found himself entrusted with the future of tiny groups believed to have migrated from Africa around 50,000 years ago, described by a team of geneticists as “arguably the most enigmatic people on our planet.” India would do it better, he promised himself.
So it is notable that now, when he looks back on his life’s great achievement, he does so with an unmistakable sadness.
Pandit arrived in Port Blair, the capital city of the island chain, in 1966. Anthropology was such a new field in India that when he was offered a spot to study it at Delhi University he had to look the word up in the dictionary. His first government posting came as a disappointment: the Andaman Islands, an archipelago so remote that the British used it as a penal colony.
He found, to his surprise, that the place suited him. His head was full of the romantic phrases of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, a British anthropologist who studied the tribes at the turn of the century, describing them as “brave, valiant and very clever people.” He was dismayed to find their descendants begging for alms, teased by the local children.
In a handout photo, T.N. Pandit, left, presents gifts of coconuts to the isolated Sentinelese tribe near North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman Islands, in 1991.
But there were other tribes, he learned, that had hardly changed since the days of Radcliffe-Brown. One group lived alone on a 32-square-kilometre island called North Sentinel and had barely been seen at all. The other group, known as the Jarawa, were fearsome archers, known for hiding in the treetops and neatly impaling with arrows outsiders who encroached on their territory. Government policy toward the Jarawa fell to the Bush Police, who were armed with rifles and kept careful records of casualties on both sides.
Pandit was openly contemptuous of this martial approach, which dated back to the British Raj. In 1967, he managed to join a “gift-dropping” expedition to North Sentinel Island, where the police dropped off coconuts and bananas while the members of the tribe, known as the Sentinelese, hid in the forest.
“They were watching us carefully, and they must not have been happy, because they picked up their bows and arrows,” he said. “This whole encounter was so amazing, because here is civilized man facing primitive man in its extreme state, living very simply.”
In 1968, Pandit had a stroke of luck. Three Jarawa teenagers, captured raiding a village, were kept in prison for a month, so Pandit had a chance to study them at close range. He showed them airplanes and cars. He scribbled down words in their language. After a month, the three young men, loaded down with gifts, were released back to the forest.
There was a silence. Then, six years later, for reasons Pandit could never explain, a group of Jarawa greeted him on the beach with song and dance. He visited, after that, every two weeks or so. They would strip off his clothes, poke fingers in his eyes, pocket his spectacles.
He recalls these days, even now, with a kind of reverence and delight.
Anthropologist T.N. Pandit at his home in New Delhi, April 6, 2017. He now regrets his impact as a researcher: “The negative impact of close contact is inescapable, but it is sad."
“I have seen a Jarawa girl,” he said. “I can never forget her face, though it was many years back. She sat in the boat watching us as if she was Queen Victoria, with such dignity and such poise. You see, then I realized one doesn’t need clothes and ornaments and crown to make you dignified. What comes spontaneously, your inner self, you can project your personality that way.”
Pandit’s campaign worked. By the 1990s, the Jarawa were so at ease with outsiders that they began to roam the neighboring settlements, where they found food that required neither hunting nor gathering.
It is difficult to identify the precise moment when contact with the Jarawa came to be viewed as a problem. They began to fish and weave baskets in exchange for money. Sometimes they snatched food from market stalls. Video clips show Indian tourists tossing food to Jarawa on the roadside, crudely ordering the women to dance. Babies fathered by Indian settlers were born to Jarawa women.
Activists concerned with the tribes increasingly described contact missions as a kind of cultural destruction, introducing rot from within. Governments in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia were adopting “no-contact” policies, and India followed suit. Gift-giving expeditions to the Sentinelese stopped in 1996, and the Indian navy now enforces a buffer zone to keep curiosity-seekers away.
In 2004, the central government formulated a new policy toward the Jarawa, with the primary goal of protecting them “from harmful effects of exposure and contact with the outside world.”
But the process of integration, once begun, was impossible to stop, said Samir Acharya, a local environmental activist, with a touch of bitterness.
“Now they have gotten infected,” he said. “They have been exposed to a modern way of life they cannot sustain. They have learned to eat rice and sugar. We have turned a free people into beggars.”
A faction of anthropologists continue to defend the practice of controlled contact, saying that humans are by nature social animals, longing to interact. As one put it recently, “There is nothing particularly attractive about living in an isolated tribe on the slow road to extinction.” But their protestations have a weary tone, as of one losing an argument.
Pandit has followed these developments from the hushed apartment in New Delhi where he lives with the third of his four daughters.
It is nearly impossible for him to discuss his work in the Andaman Islands without thinking of his wife, Roshi, who died in 2015. Roshi would sit with him and endlessly discuss the tribes. His loss remains so painful that he has tried to train his mind not to dwell on it. He struggles, he says, to come to terms with the fleeting quality of human experience.
“Nothing is permanent,” he said. “What has gone on in the past looks like having been a dream.”
In the end, Pandit agrees that the Jarawa were hurt by putting down their bows and arrows.
“The negative impact of close contact is inescapable, but it is sad,” he said. “What an amazing community, but it has been diluted in its outlook, its self-confidence, its sense of purpose, its sense of survival. Now they take it easy. They beg for things.”
This was not a surprise. He understood that his work would expose the tribes to the outside, with its dazzling technology, and that they would submit avidly. His aim, he said, was to control the process, to slow it as much as possible, so that they understood the value of what they were leaving behind.
“In the course of time, these communities will disappear,” he said. “Their cultures will be lost.”
Pandit last traveled to Jarawa territory in 2014, on a visit to a daughter in Port Blair. Since then, he has become more physically fragile and doubts he will make the journey again. He is left with the photographs — square black-and-whites from the 1970s, faded colour from the 1980s — and with his thoughts.
“I see them sometimes in my dreams,” he said. “Just being with them and spending a little time. Not too long. Not frequently. Just once in a while.” And on those mornings, he said, he wakes up happy.