In a solitary cell of the Robben Island prison, a tall, powerfully built man sat in front of his desk and gazed intently at the picture of a woman, nude except for a piece of red cloth tied round her neck. On the desk, neatly arranged, were thick books and writing materials. Behind him, on the wall were other photographs. The narrow cell had a barred door and a high ventilator typical of most colonial jails. The man has spent eighteen years in the cell. The man was Nelson Mandela.
Could there be a connection between Nelson Mandela and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands?
At the outset, it may appear preposterous. Mandela never came to the Islands. India was already a free country when he started the fight against the apartheid regime of South Africa. However, on second thought, some similarities do emerge.
Mandela, of course, was a freedom fighter of South Africa, much like the freedom fighters that were sent to the Andaman Islands. He too fought against foreign rule based on racial discrimination and exploitation of the majority by a small White minority regime. He too was exiled to the notorious Robben Island prison just as our own freedom fighters were sent to the Viper Island prison or the Cellular Jail. He too was subjected to the same kind of tortures meted out to our own freedom fighters – solitary confinement, hard labour, cruel punishment and humiliation.
But, did he, during his confinement on Robben Island, chance upon any reference to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands?
A reading of the epoch making autobiography of Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, throws up some interesting facts.
During the long years of incarceration on Robben Island, to beat the solitude and boredom, Mandela would read books, write letters, and fantasize about what he would do after his release from prison. Gazing upon the pictures of his loved ones and writing letters to them was one way of escape from solitude. In a letter to his wife Winnie, he writes:
“Your beautiful photo stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this note. … Nolitha stands on the table directly opposite me. How can my spirits ever be down when I enjoy the fond affection of such wonderful ladies?” - pp. 591-92
‘Nolitha’ was the name Mandela invented for the woman in the photo he kept on his desk. In a letter to his daughter Zindzi, Mandela writes:
“By the way, has Mom ever told you about Nolitha, the other lady in my cell from the Andaman Islands? … She regards the pygmy beauty as some sort of rival and hardly suspects that I took the picture out of the National Geographic.” P.592
Mandela’s sudden transfer from Robben Island, his release and election as the first black president of South Africa is history. Nolitha was forgotten, till she surfaced again in 2004. Between the pages of one of the two notebooks Mandela used for drafting the letters he wrote while in Robben Island prison was found the same picture.
A prison guard on Robben Island who used to censor the letters of the prisoners took away the books and kept them with him for about 23 years before returning them. He could have sold them and made a fortune but his conscience did not permit him. Mandela recognized the books as his own and Nolitha too. When asked why he kept the picture, Mandela said he saw in the exuberance of the woman a “celebration of life”.
What could have been on Mandela’s mind when on December 26, 2004, a couple of months after the rediscovery of the photo, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands were devastated by the tsunami?