Birds Of the Great Andamanese

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FROM THE BOOK REVIEW ARCHIVES

Birds Of the Great Andamanese

By : Mehran Zaidi
Birds Of the Great Andamanese

Birds Of the Great Andamanese

Author:
Anvita Abbi,
Satish Pande
Oxford University Press, 
2011

‘This is a labor of love in more ways than one—deep love both for the scientific work that went into it and for the people whose language and knowledge are the object of this book.’ Luisa Maffi, Co-founder and Director of Teralingua said in her Foreword. This I found out to be true when I read this book. Let me explain how.

Being an amateur birdwatcher myself, I am surrounded by dozens of books on birds, and keep going back to them again and again. These range from the compact handbook on the Birds Of Kangra by Jan William Den Besten to the exhaustive tome Birds Of the Indian Subcontinent by Richard Grimmett and Carol Inskipp. Above all, of course, is the Bible of Indian ornithologists, The Book Of Indian Birds by the ‘Birdman of India’ Dr. Salim Ali. Most of these books are indispensible, enlightening and valuable, and have always motivated me to get up and go bird watching to the nearest forest cover.

Birds have always enchanted human beings. In these modern times with its peculiar tensions and pressures, bird watching acts as a great stress-buster. So, I do feel blessed to be living in Delhi, home to numerous bird species and one of the greenest capital cities in the world. Be it the banks of the Yamuna river or the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, you are sure to find a number of birds. The sight of a Kingfisher flying over water and swooping down to catch a fish is what blissful moments are made of.

Abbi’s work on the languages of the Andaman tribes is well known. She has painstakingly put together a dictionary of the Great Andamanese and their dying language. Noble work indeed. Pande is a known ornithologist and has done considerable work on birds.

The short section on recognizing bird species is very insightful. The ‘Utilitarian View’ versus ‘Inherent Need’ debate was perfectly written and to the point. The most riveting part about this section was the birds being considered ancestors by the Great Andamanese people. To quote from this section:

Though birds in general are considered to be the Great Andamanese ancestors, some birds like mynas, doves, pigeons and brahminy kites are particularly not eaten because they are specially named after ancestors.

I was fascinated by the excellent accounts and behavioural patterns given about the Great Andamanese people. How they hunt, what their customs are, beliefs, how they bury their dead etc., is evocatively recounted.

The section on beliefs is in particular written brilliantly. To quote from the book:

Andamanese have no idols. They have faith in dreams and in utterances of certain 'wise men' or shamans. They believe in a god who resides in heaven above and they do not know about sacrifice, prayer or worship. The spirits of the sea and the woods are considered evil and they are feared for the punishment that they impose in the form of storms and suchlike. Jirmu is a mythic animal supposed to be as big as a cow and an inhabitant of Mayabander, North Andaman. It is believed that anyone who touched this animal would get stuck to it because of its sticky hair. It was supposed to produce the tinkle of bells when it walked.

Pharako (a creeper) is used for making rope to hunt turtles and dugong. It is believed that if a pregnant woman crosses over a creeper, she will have a miscarriage. The milk emitted from the leaf of the creeper is believed to be potent enough to blind a person if it gets into the eyes.

The introductory sections contain regular information for the perusal of bird watchers, such as the biogeography of the region covered, guidance on timing of visits, and a short gazetteer.

This well researched book covers species found in the Andaman Islands. Some of these like the Little Egret, the Grey Heron, the Paradise Flycatcher, the Alexandrine Parakeet or the Oriental Honey Buzzard can be seen elsewhere in India and even in Delhi. The real treat is the information provided about the birds which are endemic to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Birds like the Andaman Woodpecker, the Andaman Bulbul, the Nicobar Parakeet, the Andaman Cuckoo-Dove and the beautiful Narcondam Hornbill. Each narrative is illustrated with one or more photographs. These are accompanied by useful information on identification, habitat, scientific names, and diet. These categories are almost mandatory in most books on birds. What is unique in the write-ups here is the information the authors provide on the linguistic, morphological, behavioural and ecological standards as well as the emotional factors that inspire the names of the birds. This information was elicited from the local people. It would have been impossible otherwise to decipher the bird classification and semiotics of the bird names given by the Great Andamanese people. For example, the local name of the White-bellied Sea-eagle is ‘karatchom.’ Its Morphological Analysis / Decomposition would be: /kara+at+com/ ‘ascend from water’ + ‘wood’ + ‘betel nut’.’ The indigenous and ornithological correlation of the White-bellied Sea-eagle is even more interesting: In Andamanese the word literally has two components, to come out of water, as well as the betel nut or the areca nut tree, and indicates the bird’s habit of hunting at sea and then perching on the betel nut tree. What touched me was the source so thoughtfully provided by the authors. In the deconstruction, for example, of ‘karatchom’, it was done with the help of ‘ local tribesman calledNao Jr.’

The book is charmingly designed, pleasantly set and beautifully printed and bound. A stronger font could have been chosen as the text is on a coloured background. There must be some sort of colour coding for the bands on the top of the pages.

I conclude with two lines from the dedication of this book. ‘We humbly dedicate this book:  To the vanishing voices of a great civilization, To the whispers that echo in the jungles of the Andamans’.

Mehran Zaidi is a news editor/producer with Asian News International and an amateur ornithologist with two books to his credit, Bird By Bird and The Birds and Butterflies Of Delhi. On and off he writes about nature.