Chowra is slow to show its welcome, but soon, behind the stoic, rarely smiling faces, you see a shy curiosity, a matter-of-fact hospitality, and even a kind of warmth. I was supposed to have left today for Karmota to catch the ship to Port Blair, but the fickleness of vessel schedules dictates that I will miss the ship and have to try my luck on the chopper that leaves on Tuesday. The upshot of these island logistics is that I will spend three more days on this magically real piece of land.
The more we speak to people here, Manish and I, wandering from house to house with notebooks, Dictaphones and cameras, the more blurred the boundaries become between the Newtonian world I choose to live in, and the pragmatic metaphysical universe of symbol and myth that Chowra constructs for itself. At one level the community is held together with some of the most far-sighted institutions – all rules, justice, equity and fair play, maintained by strong bonds of reciprocity and kinship. At another, the island mindscape is sculpted deep with superstition and living myth. Giant octopi. Vengeful, ship-wrecking fish. Ghosts of drowned fishers that swim the reef. Shamans and the power they can wield over a naïve soul. And a host of complex ritual and belief that governs the calendar of the Chowra islander. Christianity takes little away from this, adding yet another layer to this rich tapestry of symbol.
So, this evening, after Lenten Vespers (Abide With Me sung in Car Nicobarese), the islanders walked around the village bare-chested, with banana leaf garlands around their necks, their bodies smeared with pig blood. Christ on the cross. The Lamb of God. Spirit into flesh. A slaughtered pig. The 39 lashes. Flesh into spirit. Rites of spring. All these curiously intertwined images made vividly real on the chiselled red glistening bodies walking around the village.
And just when you are ready to succumb completely to the tribal haze, the island generator comes on, and the bloody bodies all become transfixed to the television in the Tribal Council Chief’s house, watching a lurid Tamil film dubbed into Hindi. Here too the homogenisation of cultures is proceeding apace. As we walk back to our sad alien capsule on the border of the grasslands, every household we pass has a small gathering of families paying homage at the altar of their post-tsunami television sets.
A culture that still smears pig blood on their bodies as a part of their catechesis must surely be more resilient against the relentlessness of something as mere as the cathode ray tube.