Welcomed with Arrows

In the Bay of Bengal, two and a quarter hours flying time from Kolkata or Chennai, and about 1300 kilometres away from them lies Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are a part of India. These islands were in the news twice recently. One news was about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit there, on 30th December 2018. He renamed three islands, ie, Ross Island, Neil Island and Havelock Island to Subhash Chandra Bose Dweep, Shaheed Dweep, and Swaraj Dweep respectively. But by far the bigger news was of the death of a young American missionary named John Chau in a place called North Sentinel Island, a place too dangerous to approach.

This island is the habitat of the Sentinelese aborigine people, who remain a bunch of uncontacted and uncontactable people, even in today’s interconnected world. For thousands of years, these tribes have been living there with a pathological resentment of civilization, and so they want to be left alone, thank you. No one has any idea what language they speak. Anthropologists know that these tribes have been in utter isolation forever, and since even other islanders have failed to get close enough to hear them, the Sentinelese people’s language may not have any contemporary relatives. We do know just a bit about their other lifestyle from the observations of a handful of people who have made quick, stealthful entries and exits over the decades. These xenophobic people live in hutments, make and use bows and arrows, and thrive on fish and berries. They know how to light and douse fires for cooking. Since 1956, the Indian government has declared the island an exclusion zone, because the outside world is dangerous to these people, and the natives in turn are dangerous to any outsider who wants entry. As such, India’s Protection of Aboriginal Tribes regulation makes it unlawful to attempt contact or come within 5 kilometres of the island’s coastline. Since they have never been immunized against many diseases that exist in the civilized world, the Sentinelese are highly vulnerable to them. Even flu or chicken pox could manage to wipe off their entire, tiny population in weeks. Although no one knows how many of them are there on that island, estimates vary between 150 and 350 people. It is extremely hard to access this place anyway, not just because of the coral reefs that form a natural defence of the island, but also because of the abovementioned antagonistic belief systems of its natives. To sustain this belief system, they invest a lot of time and resources on making bows and arrows. An economist would perhaps note that the islanders spend the highest amount of their GDP on defence!

As such, if you try to get into their territory, they’ll immediately welcome you with arrows. You’ll be lucky if you can dodge these missiles. Many intrepid adventurers did manage to escape them in the 1970s, 1980s, and later. But John Chau persisted. He went near the island on 15th November, got hurt, withdrew, refreshed his resolve, and neared the colony again the next day. He was to learn a fatal lesson on 16th November 2018, when tribal archers eliminated him with arrows.

To avenge the death of its citizen, the Americans could have responded of course. They could even have bombed the place in a matter of hours. But it’s not a good time to be an American, in geopolitical popularity. Besides, that would be an attack on Indian soil, and so an act of war with us. Most importantly, the natives didn’t go after John Chau without a reason; he was trespassing on their private space, which was an illegal act. It also gets a bit sticky for America’s image that the man was going in there to spread the message of the Bible and convert the people to Christianity.

Arrows and bows are called teer and kamaan respectively in Hindustani language. They are also called baan and dhanush. Our poets have used teer and baan as metaphors in poetry, both to ignite love—in the Cupid way—as well as to injure it. Check out these songs from our films, which make an early reference to such ammunition:

  • Nainon ke baan ki reet anokhi (Shamshad, Ghulam Haider/Khazanchi, 1941)
  • Saajan ke naina jaadu baan (Amirbai, Mumtaz/Najma, 1943)
  • Wo teer kaleje par ik shokh ne maara hai (Mukesh/Anjuman, 1948)
  • Chubh gaye nainan baan (Geeta/Hip Hip Hurray, 1948)
  • Ek teer chalaane waale ne (Mukesh, Sitara Kanpuri/Pugree, 1948)
  • Ek teer chala…haaye mera dil (Rajkumari/Mahal, 1949)
  • Dil par kisi ka teer-e-nazar kha ke reh gaye (Talat/Raakhi, 1949)
  • Has ke na teer chala (Lata, Rafi/Beqasoor, 1950)
  • Maaro na nainwa ke baan (Shamshad/Nirdosh, 1950)
  • Teer khaate jaayenge (Lata/Deewana, 1952)
  • Teer chala teer chala teer chala (Talat/Naghma, 1953)
  • Na maaro najariya ke baan (Lata/Pehli Jhalak, 1954)
  • Tere teer-e-nazar ka balam dil nishaana hua (Asha, Rafi/Bhagam Bhaag, 1956)
  • Kaise kaise teer chalaaye (Asha/Mr Lambu, 1956)
  • Teekhe hain nainwa ke baan (Asha, SD Batish/Dushman, 1957)
  • Nainon ke baan chale (Sudha/Chalta Purza, 1958)
  • Teer ye chhupke chalaaya kisne (Asha/Phagun, 1958)
  • Nazron ke teer maare kas kas kas (Rafi, Asha/Do Ustad, 1959)
  • Tere teer ko humne pyaar se dil mein rakh liya (Lata/Qaidi No 911, 1959)
  • Tera teer o be-peer dil ke aaram paar hai (Lata/Shararat, 1959)
  • Chalenge teer jab dil par to armaanon ka kya hoga (Rafi, Lata/Kohinoor, 1960)
  • Wo teer dil pe chala jo teri kamaan mein hai (Rafi, Asha/Aarti, 1962)
  • Main tum pe teer chala doon to kya karoge (Asha/Veer Bhimsen, 1964)
  • In aankhon se nazar ka teer (Asha/Neela Akash, 1965)
  • Teer aankhon ke jigar ke paar kar do yaar tum (Mukesh/Gunahon Ka Devta, 1967)

Judging from the merit in the above songs, it is clear that they share a central quality with arrows: reusability. Many arrows and such songs can be recalled for repeated ‘use’. Seen in that light, firearms are not so much fun, which also may be why lyrics featuring them are few and far between. For instance, take the songs Sandook mein bandook hai, bandook mein goli (Shamshad/Hoor-e-Arab, 1955) and Goli maar bheje mein (Mano/Satya, 1998). To many of us, such songs are like spent bullets, ie, finished after one use 🙂

As for the 26-year-old John Chau, his excursion into North Sentinel Island has sparked a hot debate. Were the Sentinelese justified in killing a harmless intruder? Or did John Chau have no business to go in? Observes the dead man’s friend, Daniel Wesley in Christian Post:

“Was John merely a rogue ‘adventurer’ harboring an unspoken death wish who foolishly went to a remote Island in the Indian Ocean to kick a soccer ball around with the most isolated tribe on the planet or is it possible he was someone much more?”

Adds he: “His desire was to become one of them, hunting alongside the North Sentinelese, sleeping in their huts, eating the same diet and learning their language. His intention was never to simply drop in and preach to them in English as some have erroneously suggested. In fact, one learns from his updates, his journal entries, and from conversations with his friends that John was fully committed to living there for the rest of his life, something that tragically came to pass far earlier than he hoped”.

Wonder what you think.


Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 12 January 2019 on page 13

Featured image: Chalenge teer jab dil par


One Reply to “Welcomed with Arrows”

  1. Your website opens for me. A very well written essay this week, Manek. Learnt a lot! Loved the part where you compare the songs of yore with the more modern ones. “Judging from the merit in the above songs, it is clear that they share a central quality with arrows: reusability.” and “To many of us, such songs are like spent bullets, ie, finished after one use ?” : the arrows Vs firearms! Fabulous analogy.

Comments are closed.