Excerpt from Glorious Boy
The indigenous people of the Andaman Islands play an essential role in this novel, set in the wilds of British India before and during World War II. Here Claire and Shep Durant, an aspiring American anthropologist and her British naturalist husband, make their first field trip into the forest to visit one tribe of the Great Andamanese in 1936. [Today the Great Andamanese are virtually extinct.]
The Biya camp consisted of a narrow clearing with thatched shed-like structures that housed fewer than a dozen people, most clad only in a belt of leaves or shells. The Biyas decorated their skin with dried yellow clay. A few wore twine necklaces, women bare-breasted, and all but the youngest were scarred in distinctive patterns up and down their torsos. None stood taller than five feet.
Claire glanced at Shep, whose delighted expression mirrored her feelings exactly. They had done it. They had entered a time capsule by leaving almost everything familiar behind and discovered a reality so strange and new yet ancient that it made every nerve in her body quiver. Except, of course, that they hadn’t actually discovered anything. The Biya had been living here all along. She and Shep were simply catching up.
They needed to appear at ease. She must keep clear mental notes until she could get to her field journal. She had to become what Professor Benedict called an inconspicuous observer. But how?
“Just act natural,” Shep breathed as they followed Leyo to the center of the clearing.
How would she feel if some stranger from an alien world asked to watch her every move? The Biya were no different.
“Natural to who?” It was an honest question. Everything from their ground cloths and netting to mosquito boots must seem preposterous to the Biya. As would her desire to study this clan.
Then something released in her. How would she feel if some stranger from an alien world asked to watch her every move? The Biya were no different. No different. Treat them with respect and compassion, not condescension. Trust that they know what they’re doing, even if you don’t. Show the genuine interest of a friend, not the intrusiveness of a voyeur.
An older woman with a frizz of gray hair and a man’s blue necktie looped around her broad belly stepped from one of the huts. Leyo embraced himself, then hugged the woman, who responded by patting his face and tugging at his singlet with amused disapproval. He’d told them he had just one living relative, an auntie named Mam Golat. “Umimi,” he called her now. Aunt, or great aunt, or adoptive aunt — Claire wasn’t sure which, and Leyo didn’t immediately introduce them.
Instead he motioned them toward a male elder with pronounced lips and eyes. Kuli was the smallest of the adults, with slender limbs and a sequence of horizontal scars forming a ghostly ladder from right to left up his torso. He wore a headdress of grass that resembled a blond wig and a matching necklace that covered his collarbones. His cheeks were high and wide, his bearing regal, his composure absolute.
Chief Kuli pursed his lips, looked the foreigners solemnly up and down, then grinned and crossed his arms over his chest.
Claire made the same cross, nodding slightly in deference. Shep followed suit, then dug in his pocket for the gifts that Leyo had recommended. A pair of shoelaces. A pair of tin spoons. A candle and a box of wooden matches. Nothing to eat, sniff, or drink.
Kuli took the gifts in his leathered hands and raised them level with his chin, then turned them over to Mam Golat. His attitude was so calm and practiced that Claire couldn’t help asking Leyo, “Did you tell him we were coming?”
Leyo waggled his hand like an Indian headshake and turned back to confer with the headman.
“How could he?” Shep asked Claire. “He hasn’t been off Ross long enough to make this trip, and there’s not exactly postal service.”
“True,” she said. “Maybe Kuli’s just naturally hospitable.” Or perhaps, she thought, the Biyas’ silent language traveled.
Still flat-chested with the pudgy limbs of a child, even she had been scarred.
Animated conversation now burst around them as the rest of the clan resumed their chores. Talk, Claire, reminded herself, was reserved for problems and planning. Were she and Shep deemed a problem? She listened for the full-throated phonetics that Leyo had been struggling to teach her. Sixteen vowels, sixteen consonants. Amid the clicking and tapping and uvular gulps, she managed to make out only the words for hair, skin, hands, white, snake.
The last, on the menu for lunch, was a huge reticulated python being sliced beside the cookfire.
Claire shifted her focus to ward off a wave of nausea and noticed a toddler approaching on a club foot, swaying from side to side. He had a round belly and an amiable smile and seemed to have no sense that his deformity was a handicap.
Shep knelt in front of the child, offering his pith helmet as a plaything. With glee the boy plunked the topi over his own head and peered out like a tortoise from its shell. Shep proceeded to play peekaboo with him while Claire looked around for the child’s mother.
There were two possible candidates. One thickset young woman with shaved eyebrows laughed and chided the boy. The other, whose buck teeth gave her frown the quality of a rictus, yanked the child roughly away from Shep, sending the topi rolling and the little boy tottering off toward the dogs. Parenting appeared to be a communal enterprise.
Claire fingered her Kodak. Photographs would help. With images, she and Leyo could discuss the roles and relationships of everyone in the clan. A young girl, perhaps nine or ten, stood in front of her offering a pithed coconut. In Port Blair, vendors along the beach peddled freshly hacked coconuts whose water was refreshing, if tasteless. This liquid, however, was dark and silty, and Claire only pretended to sip it before handing the shell back with thanks to the girl.
The girl stayed, gawking. Still flat-chested with the pudgy limbs of a child, even she had been scarred. The featherlike markings covered her belly. She wore a dirty white band resembling surgical gauze around her forehead, and her mowed hair was divided like two sides of a brain by a shaved path straight down the middle. Her bright eyes studied Claire with bold intensity.
Claire pointed to herself, spoke her name, then pointed to the girl and lifted the camera. The girl grabbed it.
“Ekko!” Leyo cried and pried the device from her hands.
Claire offered Ekko her compact as a consolation prize. When she showed her the mirror inside, the child was transfixed. Soon the entire clan surrounded them. Claire asked Leyo to explain that the Kodak worked like a mirror in a box. It would borrow the clan’s reflections, and on her next visit to Behalla she would give their reflections back to them on paper.
The adults had heard of cameras. Some of their forebears who’d escaped from the old Andaman Home had brought back photographs from their time on Ross Island. Leyo told her that Kuli actually remembered Radcliffe-Brown, who’d spent several months in this area when the chief was young. The others didn’t understand why white people wanted to look at the Biya people, but they understood that they some- times did, and soon everyone went back to their chores, except for the club-footed toddler.
She knew it could be relieved with a relatively simple operation, but simplicity itself was a culturally relative term.
Shep whistled to hold the child’s attention as he studied his movements. “He is called Jodo,” Leyo said.
“Where are his parents?”
“His brother Tika.” Leyo indicated the younger of the friends who had met them in the forest. Tika looked close to Leyo’s own age. He was now squatting beside the girl Ekko.
“Mother Obeyo,” Leyo said, causing the bucktoothed woman to scowl up from the root she was mashing.
Shep asked Leyo to translate his request to her. “Jodo is young enough. If we brought him to town, I could operate on his foot. I could make him well enough to walk.”
Claire, who was photographing this conference, sensed Leyo’s reluctance as she released the shutter. Had he flinched? Pursed his mouth? Nothing so obvious as a negative word or even a frown. He would never directly oppose the surgeon of Port Blair. But she could tell that he parsed his words carefully in the relay to the boy’s mother, and with good reason from the looks of her.
Obeyo’s reply was short and curt and required no translation.
The brother Tika suddenly snatched the compact from young Ekko’s hands and ran off with her in pursuit. Leyo said to Shep, “Come. I show you the scorpion flower.”
Claire thought her husband would press his case for the little boy now laboring after the two older children. Jodo’s locomotion twisted him sideways, so he landed on his ankle as if it were his heel. She knew it could be relieved with a relatively simple operation, but simplicity itself was a culturally relative term.
Shep rose, turning from Obeyo’s glower to ask Claire if she wanted to come with him. She waved him off. Become invisible, Professor Benedict would advise, or at least unobtrusive. She and Shep were less obtrusive apart.
She found a spot of deeper shade by the corner of the long hut and shrank into it, swallowing another surge of nausea. Nearby, the young woman with no eyebrows lifted and dropped a heavy stick into a bowl of seeds.
Her name was Imulu. She might be fifteen, or thirty, for all Claire could tell. Her head was shaved clean around the back so that her remaining hair resembled a glistening caracul skullcap. She had a sturdy build and wore a diagonal sling of woven birchbark across her heavy round breasts. Occasionally she threw Claire an inscrutable glance as the stick fell. Thunk.
Claire lifted the camera and, since the woman made no protest, was about to snap the shutter when the rhythm broke and her subject reached into the shadows behind the bowl. An instant later Imulu was hoisting an infant from a bed of pandan leaves.
Claire’s pulse quickened as the baby snuggled into its sling and latched onto the young mother’s breast. This time when Imulu looked her way, Claire felt exposed, as if this stranger could read her every fear, every pretense that had brought her here and, most clearly of all, the primal condition that was destined to thwart her ludicrous ambitions. Far from the hostile glares of Radcliffe-Brown’s Andamanese, Imulu’s face bloomed with good-natured derision.
Before she could react, however, Shep reappeared with an armload of blooming white specimens. He looked thrillingly young and happy.
“Eria kurzii!” he cried.