The story of a lost island

It was the Christmas of 2004. A small island at nine degree from the equator in the Bay of Bengal was reverberating with the sound of divinity and joy of church choirs. The island was inhabited by 15 villages and each one of them had their own church. People exchanged gifts, visited each other and shopped in special village markets. They partied together till late night and went off to sleep thereafter. By  dawn, the sea went into silence, waves abandoned the shore and the island was blindfolded by high waves that rolled into the island to perform the anti-climax. Tsunami had struck!

Pu, the island, was devastated, churches were razed to grounds, coconut groves were uprooted to fly in the sky… a guitar that was played in the choir last night was found on the tip of a tall tree that survived the tragedy, only to be a dumb witness of the disaster. Every 20th person of Pu was dead. Survivors of the island were airlifted to safer places.

The island Pu is popularly known as Car Nicobar. It is the southernmost district headquarter of India, one of the three districts of the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Islanders of Pu did not take long to get back to their homeland. Government of India took up the responsibility to build a house for every islander and build the entire community infrastructure for them. People overcame their losses and started their life afresh. Now if you visit the island, you may not find any sign of disaster, except the Tsunami memorial that was erected in the loving memory of people who lost their lives in the tragedy.

The only difference that you may find after the tragedy is that villages have shifted from the shore to the inner parts of the island and instead of one circular road that connected all the villages, they are now branched out in many slip roads. Now you see heavy motor vehicles and many four wheelers that circulate people in 127 sq km of landmass of Pu.

The life in Pu is still guided by tribal principles, although they have imbibed all the core characteristics of modern life. They are educated in English-medium schools, but they still sing their carols in Nicobari dialect. Majority of the population is Christian and follows the Protestant church, but the village administration is still governed by traditional tribal system.

The lowest unit of tribal administration in Nicobar is Tuhet and this is also the most important unit for Nicobari society. Tuhet comprises of a larger unit of joint families. Tuhet has the legal rights on land, forest and livestock of Pu. Tuhets form a village and then elect a captain for the village council.

The captain is supported by two more deputies and every village council has to have a female member in it. All the captains of villages, who are elected by the Tuhets, finally elect the chief captain of Pu, who is known as the chairperson of the Tribal Council of Car Nicobar. He is the supreme authority in all decision-making processes in the island. ‘All decisions taken by the tribal council are accepted by every islander of Car Nicobar… there is no dispute on his judgments’, says L Davidson, the spokesperson of Car Nicobar Tribal Council. Nicobaris do not approach court or police station for any complaint, they completely rely on the tribal council.

Nicobaris are also famous for their cooperative movement, which was started by John Richardson, who is considered the father of modern Car Nicobar. Ellon Hinengo Limited (EHL) is the tribal cooperative society that ensures all kinds of inward and outward supply to and from this remote island. They are into shipping, construction and all kind of trading. EHL controls the whole economy of Nicobari islands.

The most distinct physical loss in tsunami was of Nicobari Huts. Only one such hut that is also called Gol Ghar survived in Car Nicobar in Chukchucha village. Nicobari Huts are architectural beauty. The huts are raised on wooden pillars above few feet high from the ground. These huts are circular in shape with a dome like finish at the top. They are covered by the thick thatch of grass that are brought from the neighbouring island, Chowra.

The light comes through the floor that is made of long and thin bamboo sticks which are placed in two layers cross cutting each other and leaving passage for the air and light. The hut has an ideal air-conditioning. The floor area is circular and can accommodate about 20 people at a time. The roof top level is used for storage of grains and other essential items.

During summers when I almost  got drenched out by noon, I entered the hut through a ladder. It felt like heaven! A sip of tender coconut made me feel like the most satisfied man on earth.

Akhilesh Jha is a government servant. The views are his own
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