I want to write about a particular arrow. The boy who sleeps with the arrow next to his bed has lent it to me for a day. He said that the arrow knows everything.
Earthworm? Looking at my questioning eyes, he replies unhurriedly,
“I speak to the earth. The earth tells me everything.” A little later he adds, “No one listens to the earth. Only I listen.”
He has quite Negroid features. He speaks English slowly, pausing every now and then. From his pronunciation, it seems that hewas born in Kerala, Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. I didn’t ask him. About seven years ago he had brought me a bunch of uprooted paddy in a bag. He doesn’t use plastic. He buys cheap pyjamas from footpath stalls and cuts their leg part to make bags. Handing me the bundle of paddy he had said, “Keep the bag. Don’t use plastic.”
“A bundle of paddy?” I asked.
“Yes. No more jungles are left. The elephant comes down to the paddy field to eat nowadays.” Pausing, he added with perplexed eyes, “They killed it by calling it a mad elephant. It was a female elephant with a baby in its womb. Water.”
He comes to my house once in a while and drinks a glass of water. This journalist who calls himself “Earthworm” has an address on the card — “Care of Sajhir, Dinky&’s Garage. Time for appointments: from 11 pm to four am.” It even has a mobile phone number.
This is my very personal journalist. I have heard that I am really fortunate because sometimes he uploads his messages on the Internet. The name “Earthworm” is suitable for him because earthworms are born in the soil and feed on it. So who would be more suitable than him to give the news of the earth to us?
He was lost from the year the tsunami took place. Actually, he disappeared just after the tsunami. He then returned after a long time, gave me the arrow, and told me, “Write something about the arrow.” And so I am writing this.
While I have seen different kinds of arrows in various places in India and have written about them, this arrow was not like them at all. It was six foot long. A kind of long but malleable cane grown in the Andamans. He told me that the bhumiputras — the sons of the soil — of the Andamans (he had mentioned some Latin name for those natives but I can’t remember it now) belong to the same species as that of the world&’s oldest human beings. They have been living on this planet for 50,000 years. This arrow was made by them. They then added a tip to the long cane.
He told me, “Do you know that they knew about it? Their world comprised of that island, that sea and that jungle. But so many ships would come from Europe, particularly from England, and some of them would sink. They would row their boats to those places and pick up all the nuts, bolts, iron sheets, etc, with utmost care. Afterward they would beat them and create arrow tips. That is why you will find that this arrow has an iron tip.”
“This arrow, how old is it?’
“Two hundred, 500, or maybe 700 years? Who can tell? Have I ever spoken to them?”
“Have you seen them?”
He shook his head in deep frustration. Pausing for a while, he replied slowly, “That is what I have been trying to do for my whole life. The earth speaks. She says, ‘Don’t destroy me like this.’ The tree says, ‘Don’t cut me down.’ The elephant says, ‘Don’t kill me.’ But who listens? We have forgotten to listen. Isn’t that the case? But they want to speak. I know.”
He took a long time to say these few words. With pauses in between, he pronounced each word slowly. He wiped his face and his lips. And in a low voice he then shook his head and repeated the words, “So hard!” Then all of a sudden he wiped his face, stiffened his spine as if he was testifying in a court, and said, “Whatever I know, I know through books. You have seen the book. I keep it always with me.” It took him three minutes to pronounce the word “always”. In that book …
I also keep such a book. But I didn’t get an opportunity to tell him that I too keep such a book because he never came again.
He had said, “In 1290 AD, probablyafter seeing part of the shores of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Marco Polo had written, ‘Angamanain is a big island. There is no monarchy in that island. The inhabitants are idol worshippers. They can be called ‘animals’. I am saying that the shape of the heads of the natives of Angamanain Island is like that of dogs. The eyes and teeth are also canine — as if each one of them is a mastiff dog. There are many spice trees here. The men are cruel. Apart from the Angamanains, they capture all outsiders and eat them up.’”
I told him, “I know. The outsiders would invade this island for the cardamom, cloves, bay leaves and other spices.”
He shook his head several times. Then he said, “uropeans would capture these dark, copper-coloured men who were much shorter than them, like dwarfs really, and used them as ‘clowns’ or ‘jesters’. If they found strong and hardy men among them, they would be sold in the market as slaves or servants. This is how white-skinned people had turned us and also Africans into slaves, isn’t that the case?”
“Yes, yes.” There was something in his words — tremendous anxiety; a strong urge to make us understand his point of view. I remember his words, “There were no jungles, so the elephant came down to the paddy field to eat… it had just put a bunch of paddy in its mouth… a female elephant… a baby in her womb.” His manner of speaking was also like an elephant. The elephant does not speak the language of man, but he does. I kept on thinking. His name “Earthworm” was very correct. Maybe he was really born in the womb of the earth. Then I softly asked, “But what about the arrow?”
“Yes, the arrow. You can see that I cannot speak very clearly. I have to brush my tongue with great difficulty to create each word. Yes, you will write. I will speak. Speak, speak, speak…”
This was the first time that he shook his head violently; he now spoke in a loud voice. All these days he hadn’t spoken like that. I suddenly felt — was the arrow speaking about itself?
North Sentinel Island — very tiny. A very tiny island! This island is only a small piece of land in the Andaman Islands. Our poet had written about the tiny island of Ceylon as a golden land — Sindhur tip, Singhaldweep, kanchanmoydesh. This island is, of course, a tiny bit of land and in this ancient bit of an island lived ancient human beings. About 100 of them were alive till 1995. They had sensed it in their blood that their enemies were from outside.
The ship anchors at a distance. They come in boats. And in this almost decimated island, the diminishing ancient human beings guard with their bows and six-foot long arrows. At this moment they are the most deserted human beings on earth.
The outsiders had come and cut down the forests. The arrow was saying, “Through their very tactful and sophisticated moves these outsiders have uprooted primitive human beings.” The arrow continued to speak in its own way. “The forests have all gone; people came in hordes on boats and ships and they kept coming over for a few hundred years.” I could hear everything. I don’t know how I could hear the words of the arrow.
It told me when the Cellular Jail was built. After that it also told me what these primitive human beings in an ancient bygone world were doing when India was divided into two. A strange kind of communication was going on between me and this ancient first arrow.
I kept questioning it, and it kept replying. The room was, of course, silent. Even then I could hear it. The sound of the sea waves could be heard behind each word of the arrow. The words were touched by the blow of the salty breeze… They were the first people on earth. They recognised everything. They knew that something was happening beneath the water of the sea. The colour of the coral islands was changing. The sea gulls were no longer flying. This happened once in 100 or 150 years.
The arrow whispered, “The Onges, Jarowas and the Sentinelese went up the mountains. They had bows and arrows with them. For 50,000 years the bow and arrow were their companions.”
“What happened afterwards?” My question was wordless. The arrow was also answering through silence.
“But the mountains were not like their earlier form. The jungles were also not like before. All these days they would shoot arrows whenever they saw boats bearing outsiders. Now helicopters came to look for survivors in the tsunami-ravaged Andamans. They were giddy with hunger; everything was drying up for lack of water.”
“What happened then?”
“ They shot arrows.”
“The arrows were not reaching anywhere.”
The army descended upon the Sentinelese in the Andamans and the Little Andamans. They were troops of the Indian government. It was the duty of those military men to save people after natural disasters.
By that time, my reporter, my “Earthworm” went along with that army and was reporting on land, water, trees, birds and corals in person. He admitted that all of them were in grave danger. They had to be understood and also listened to. He was sniffing the water and the sand. And he was repeatedly looking at the mountains and the forests. The commander shook his head and said, “There is no one. Go back.”
He still kept searching with wide open eyes, sometimes bending his shoulders to listen more carefully…
The “rescue boat” was about to leave. It was almost leaving. He shook his head and said, “Go away.”
And just then, a single, lonely arrow came and landed in front of him. He lay down on the floor on his stomach. He put his hand on the arrow and caressed it with his fingers.
“The army boat had left,” he said.
“I brought the arrow.”
“What happened to them?”
“The Sentinelese people are very few in number. Whether Sentinelese or Onges or Jarowas — whether they live or die, who cares for them?”
“What will you do?”
He broke into a smile. A very beautiful, soft smile. And then he said, “I will listen to the earth. The earth wants to speak. This arrow has also brought some messages with it.”
I dedicate this story to Madhushree Mukherjee, who wrote the book The Land of Naked People.
translated from the bengali by somdatta mandal, this was published in bortika: a quarterly journal on society and culture (july-september 2007) edited by the writer