| Survivors at a tsunami relief camp in Port Blair
March 20: Much of the world may not have heard of the Andaman islands till the tsunami, but one of literature's most curious minds had stumbled upon it years ago.
Revisit Arthur Conan Doyle's Sign of the Four and you will find in its pages a villain ' the 'savage, distorted' Tonga, an 'unhallowed dwarf with his hideous face' ' who hailed from the archipelago.
Even 115 years after the classic was published, the stone-age tribes are still considered 'exotic'.
While the habits of the five remaining unsocialised groups ' the Jarawas, Onges, Great Andamanese, Sentinelese and the Shompens ' continue to be the subject of anthropological studies, little information has made its way into the public domain. So when the tsunami struck, curiosity in the 'civilised' world peaked.
But with the law of the land making it illegal to interact with the natives (rigorously applied when it comes to keeping the media far away from them), the mystique that captured Conan Doyle lives on.
Possibly intrigued by the islands after the assassination of Viceroy Mayo on February 2, 1872, the author makes a colourful ' though utterly inaccurate ' tribal the centre of the murder of Bartholomew Sholto in the second Sherlock Holmes story. Dr Watson paints a horrific picture: the 'little black man ' the smallest I had ever seen ' with a great misshapen head and a shock of tangled, dishevelled hair'.
Tonga, according to him, had a face 'enough to give a man a sleepless night. Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with a half-animal fury'.
Poor Tonga, whose weapon was a poisoned thorn, also makes it to Mark Haddon's award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, through the autistic mind of protagonist Christopher, a Holmes buff.
No pygmy race has been accounted for in volumes of anthropology. The characteristics fit none of the living tribes. But by 1889, when the Sign of the Four was first published, the distant islands had already gained notoriety in England. They had been colonised in 1789 and abandoned in 1796 due to difficult climate, only to be re-established as a penal colony in 1858.
Holmes reads out this passage from a gazetteer to Watson: 'The aborigines of the Andaman Islands may perhaps claim the distinction of being the smallest race upon this earth' They are a fierce, morose, and intractable people, though capable of forming most devoted friendships when their confidence has once been gained'
This lively image fits none of the natives of the Andamans (there is no reference to the Nicobars).
Four main Negrito tribes live in the Andaman group ' the Jarawas, Onges, Great Andamanese and the Sentinelese. Unlike the assertion in the gazetteer that 'the average height is rather below four feet, although many full-grown adults may be found who are very much smaller than this', the natives have been documented to be between 4.56 ft (females) and 4.88 ft (males).
There is at least a grain of truth to be found elsewhere in the story.
Holmes quotes a document that observed how 'British officials have failed to win them (the natives) over in any degree. They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast'.
There are historic accounts of savage rituals. Early reports reflect that the Andamanese would kill intruders and burn them, which fuelled rumours that they were cannibals.
But even if you comb the islands, you are unlikely to spot a pair of 'venomous, menacing eyes' like Tonga's.