Mukerjee, Madhusree 1961(?)-
MUKERJEE, Madhusree 1961(?)-
Born c. 1961, in India; married; children: three. Education: University of Chicago, Ph.D. (physics).
Author and editor. Worked as an editor at Scientific American.
Guggenheim fellowship, 2000.
The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
A book about the 1943 Bengal famine.
Madhusree Mukerjee was trained as a physicist but worked as an editor at Scientific American. In 2000, she received a Guggenheim fellowship to conduct research for a book about a small group of natives who live on the Andaman chain of islands near the Bay of Bengal off the coast of India. The result of Mukerjee's research is The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders, which describes what many believe to be the last group of Stone Age people in existence. Some may also still live as hunters and gatherers who are unable to make fire but only transport it via hot embers from place to place.
Mukerjee became interested in the Andaman Islands while growing up in India, where she learned about the infamous British prison located on the island during the 1800s wherein Indian freedom fighters were held. Stories were told about how anyone who managed to escape the island was usually killed by the natives who lived in the surrounding jungles. In an interview on the Houghton Mifflin Web site, Mukerjee recalled, "Years later, a friend mentioned that some of these 'savages' still lived on the islands, shooting arrows at boats that came too close. I had to find out what this was all about." Mukerjee was also prompted to further investigate the native islanders as she learned about their lives of poverty and how the British and then a corrupt Indian bureaucracy had exploited them.
In The Land of Naked People, Mukerjee provides both an historical and modern account of the islanders. Her primary goal is to illustrate how contact with outsiders has meant disaster for the natives. In an interview on Rediff.com, Mukerjee explained: "It offers insights in the processes of colonization and modernization, the persistence of harmful myths about 'savages,' and the continuing disturbing relationship between light and dark-skinned people."
In her chronicle of the history of the four remaining cultural groups of islanders—the Great Andamese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese—the author explains how scientists believe that the Andamans lived on the islands for at least 50,000 years. DNA studies have revealed that the people are the descendents of the first human settlers in Asia. The author also describes the gradual encroachment of the outside world onto the islands, where the natives had already acquired a reputation for ferocity by their fervent rejection of outside intruders, going so far as to kill anyone who set foot on the island. (In fact, shortly before one of the author's visits to the island, which she began in 1995, the Jarawa killed a pregnant settler.) Eventually, however, the British established a penal colony on the islands. The contact resulted in the islanders' defeat in war and death by diseases for which they had no immunity. In the 1940s, the Japanese took over the islands to build airstrips during World War II. Still, many islanders who lived in the dense interior forests of the island remained relatively unaffected by outsiders until recent times when the Indians began to further colonize the islands. Today, no more than 500 islanders exist, many now begging for handouts. Approximately only 100 or so live on their own in relative freedom. These are the Sentinelese, who continue to live in an isolated western section of the island chain, protected from outside contact by the Indian government.
Writing in Scientific American, a reviewer noted that Mukerjee's weaving of past history with the current conditions of the islanders "yield[s] … a fabric rich with meaning about what vastly different peoples can learn from one another." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman commented, "Engaging, erudite, and wily, Mukerjee uses the sprightly mode of travel writing with great irony as she chronicles the islands' cruel history of invasion and exploitation." Library Journal contributor Devin Zimmerman added that the author's "eclectic perspective … will be accessible to readers with a general interest in anthropology and other cultures." A Publishers Weekly contributor called The Land of Naked People "an impassioned portrait [of] an ancient culture on the brink of vanishing."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders, p. 1949.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2003, review of The Land of Naked People, p. 734.
Library Journal, June 1, 2003, Devin Zimmerman, review of The Land of Naked People, p. 132.
Natural History, September, 2002, Laurence A. Marshall, review of The Land of Naked People, p. 63.
Publishers Weekly, May 19, 2003, review of The Land of Naked People, p. 59.
Science News, August 30, 2003, review of The Land of Naked People, p. 143.
Scientific American, September, 2003, review of The Land of Naked People, p. 110B.
Houghton Mifflin Web site,http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/ (March 5, 2004), interview with Mukerjee.