How Disaster Aid Ravaged an Island People
It was a November midnight, year 2000, on Nancowry, one of the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. One of us (Singh) waited in the pitch-black darkness, listening to the roar of waves crashing on the shore some 20 meters away, the stars brilliant in the sky above. Soon villagers appeared carrying dried-leaf torches. Chacho, a shaman, had died in July, and tonight was the culmination of the Tanoing festival commemorating her death. All day family and friends had ritually expressed their grief by sacrificing pigs they had raised and smashing beautiful objects they had spent hours or days crafting. (To the Nicobarese, something that took time and effort to create represents wealth, and its destruction signifies detachment from the material world.) They had decorated Chacho's home elaborately and feasted on pandanus (a starchy fruit), pork and other delicacies. Now they arrived in procession, led by Chacho's brother Yehad, a minluana (spirit healer) named Tinfus and a few other elders, followed by dozens of men, women and children, all in a celebratory mood.
Yehad and his companions carried Chacho's possessions—her tools, baskets and other things that she had treasured. Some they hung on a nearby tree; the remainder they placed on a bamboo platform at the head of the grave. Then the elders festooned the grave, wrapping meters of colorful cloth around the pole that marked the site until it resembled a standing mummy. Everyone was steadily getting tipsy from the toddy (the sap tapped from coconut palms) being passed around in coconut shells, and teenagers were flirting. A few beautifully dressed girls offered the guests tobacco and betel leaves from decorated baskets.