The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Queen through thick & tsunami

Port Blair, Jan. 11: The Rani of Nancowrie lives.

Fatima Yusuf is the 'queen' of the area worst hit by the tsunami, the subdivision of Nicobar that includes Katchal, Trinkat, Teressa, Chowra and Pillowmillow. The 72-year-old is also one of its most stubborn survivors.

After spending two days in the jungles of Champion Island and another 10 in a relief camp on Camorta, the frail but firm matriarch refused to leave her devastated people. It was only when she fell ill three days ago that her family managed to convince her it was time to go to safer territory in Port Blair.

Champion is too small to show up on the map, but large enough to hold around 500 inhabitants.

It is where Fatima's grandmother Islon was crowned queen by the British. It is where her mother Lakshmi continued to reign. And it is where Fatima ' or Ammaji to all ' will now return.

'I don't want to leave my people even though there is nothing left,' she sighs, only a faint rasp making its way out of an ailing throat.

Her daughter Sabira and daughter-in-law Sharmin fill in the blanks, allowing Fatima ' the mother of six daughters and three sons ' to rest her voice. 'She says that no matter what, the family will go back to the islands and our izzat,' says Sabira.

The Nancowrie islands were apparently an award from the British. 'Islon used to talk to everyone, so the British liked her,' explains Sabira.

If she had any real administrative power is not clear. But her subjects, if they are that, come to seek her opinion on important matters.

'Rani ghar', as the Nicobarese know it, or three buildings on Champion, was where the family of 42 lived and from where they fled when the killer waves stormed in.

'Two days later, as soon as the waters settled, a boat was sent from Camorta to collect us,' recalls Sharmin, who was also stranded with her nine-month baby Simra.

Following her illness, Fatima and a few family members were flown to Port Blair.

The destruction notwithstanding, there is much for the 'queen' to go back to. Izzat aside, there is land in plenty and a society where a Muslim woman can wield authority 'even if it is now only in name ' over a mainly Christian population.

In Nancowrie, as in the rest of Nicobar, women are on an unquestioned equal footing. Even at this age, Fatima goes fishing daily, with one of her daughters usually.

With six daughters, the line of succession is also secure. If all the descendants of Islon are as strong as Fatima, it will take more than a tsunami to oust the women of Nancowrie.

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