Wednesday, December 31, 2014

1846 hrs, Dec 27, 2004: a post on; revisiting the tsunami of 2004

Dec 27, 2004  (day of posting email by person)
1846 hrs

Hello all
God bless every body. It is really sad for those who died in the devastating Tsunami. It is severe at the time since it included many tourists and recreationers in the peak season.
I really expressing my deep feelings for those affected have seen in the TV news here. Could not imagine first time when we faced the quake. Today have seen the events have come in the headline coverage of the all national dailies.
Fortunately Bangladesh face very very less comparing the other regional. We have experience while in the morning 0709 hours faced the moderate vibration and finally found it was a quake. In Cox's bazaar, on the beach, high wave and also in the deep sea fishermen faced high wave and unpredictable waves while they were fishing according to some returned fishermen. In St. Martin Island, seashore tidal surge came suddenly after getting downwards for a short time. But nothing happened yet notified. But since it is time of calm weather most of the fishermen are out in the deep sea. Still there are possibilities of missing fishermen in the offshore areas.

Quake jolts country, Bangladesh
We are lucky because of the long distance from the epicentre.  One four-year old boy was reported to have been killed in Bangladesh as a result of the massive earthquake that caused thousands to die in other parts of Southern Asia. He was traveling in a trawler off the coast of Barisal when the trawler capsized. The boy's brother is still missing.
The earthquake off the coast of Indonesia sent three aftershocks across Bangladesh cracking buildings and surging the water levels of rivers, lakes and ponds. However experts say that the relatively small damage and loss of life was because of Bangladesh's distance from the quake's epicentre.
The biggest of the tremors was recorded at Bangladesh's lone observatory in Chittagong at 7 am and measured 7.36 on the Richter scale and lasted for 42 seconds. It was 1019 kilometres away from the seismic centre. The second tremor was measured almost two hours later at 4.35 on the scale.
It was reported that the family of four-year old boy who died was travelling as tourists. They were with tourists, traveling by trawlers from coastal tour spot to a offshore island. One of the trawlers capsized during the water swells caused by the earthquake. All other passengers were safely rescued. In Dhaka, the water of the Dhanmondi lake surged significantly.
The sleeping students of the hall, which is already under threat of collapse due to lack of maintenance, came running out of their dormitories. The Al-Beruni hall developed some new cracks.
In Chittagong the tremor, the tenth in the city this year - cracked some old buildings and swelled water by 4 to 5 feet in the ponds and other water bodies. A total of 78 earthquakes have been recorded in Chittagong in the last three years
The public library and railway buildings in the port city which already had cracks due to past quakes widened following yesterday's jolt while the streets were suddenly full of panic-stricken people, police and witnesses said.
Met office staffs said that sea became very rough and there was a fear of tidal waves. In many places reported that the quake lasted for six to 30 seconds and surged the water in the rivers, canals and ponds by a few feet.
This type of earthquake occurred in 1734 and created tsunami through out the coastal region of Bangladesh. There is geological evidence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts that tidal waves rose up to 20 feet above the ground level according to Bangladesh Geological Survey. Bangladesh lucky despite the fact that the richter scale record was very high. 
Really sorry for those got the problem seriously and died....god will be with you...

best regards
Zahirul Islam
MarineLife Alliance
Holding #16, South Chartha
Comilla 3500

1122 hrs, Dec 28, 2004; a post on; revisiting the tsunami of 2004

Dec 28, 2004
1122 hrs

Dear All,
Last two days being the most devastating experience for people living in the A & N Islands and for us whose whole family is based in the islands and myself sitting in delhi....I was in touch with many people in Port Blair to get the status as my big brother (Mohammed Aslam, a teacher) is till to return from Car Nicobar.
The whole of the people in the islands were in panic situation. The relief work started around 2 pm yesterday and first three four trips of the helicopters brought only women and children and the situation was just friends told me that the relief team still does not know what to do and what to reply.......4 to 5 villages in Nicobar is completely washed off...people near the headquarter (in Nicobar) seem to be safe...
I was tensed the whole day yesterday after talking to my parents as there was no news from my brother, but late in the evening one lady who returned from Nicobar (injured) said that she has seen my brother and is safe....but he is still to return...
Naval ships are said to be bringing all the people who are there in Nicobar but is still to touch the is not confirmed whether they have started from Nicobar or not.....
Another worrying factor is that the relief team has still to think about other islands in the Nicobar group like Campbel Bay. no news from them...islands like Chowra, Teressa, Katchal, Pillomillo would be in a very devastating stage and nothing has been reported needs a strong heart even to think about the sitation of the people in these islands...
Places like Mayabunder, Diglipur and Rangat were not effected much...the damage was only due to the quake and not due to the behaviour of the relatives (my sister and my brother's wife) are there in Mayabunder but they are safe and said that nothing much has happended there apart from some cracks in the houses and buildings...
I also want to do something for the relief work in the islands and am approaching the officials to provide a channel and would let the group know if anything positive comes up...

regards (sharbendu...where are u??in delhi)))

anwar ahmed

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

1615hrs, Dec 27, 2004, a post on; revisiting the tsunami of Dec 2004

Dec 27, 2004
1615 hrs
Posted by Madhusree Mukerjee

Subject: SFGate: Warning system doesn't extend to Indian Ocean nations where death toll is highest

This article was sent to you by someone who found it on SFGate.The original article can be found on here:

Sunday, December 26, 2004 (AP)
Warning system doesn't extend to Indian Ocean nations where death toll is highest

(12-26) 21:22 PST (AP)
The catastrophic death toll in Asia caused by a massive tsunami might have been reduced had India and Sri Lanka been part of an international warning system designed to warn coastal communities about potentially deadly waves, scientists say.
More than 8,300 people in India and Sri Lanka were among the more than 13,300 killed after being hit by walls of water triggered by a tremendous earthquake early Sunday off Sumatra. The warning system is designed to alert nations that potentially destructive waves may hit their coastlines within three to 14 hours. Scientists said seismic networks recorded Sunday's massive earthquake, but without wave sensors in the region, there was no way to determine the direction a tsunami would travel.
A single wave station south of the earthquake's epicenter registered tsunami activity less than 2 feet high heading south toward Australia, researchers said. The waves also struck resort beaches on the west coast of the Thailand's south peninsula, killing hundreds. Although Thailand belongs to the international tsunami warning network, its west coast does not have the system's wave sensors mounted on ocean buoys.
The northern tip of the earthquake fault is located near the Andaman Islands, and tsunamis appear to have rushed eastward toward the Thai resort of Phuket on Sunday morning when the community was just stirring. "They had no tidal gauges and they had no warning," said Waverly Person, a geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., which monitors seismic activity worldwide. "There are no buoys in the Indian Ocean and that's where this tsunami occurred."
The tsunami was triggered by the most powerful earthquake recorded in the past 40 years. The earthquake, whose magnitude was a staggering 9.0, unleashed walls of water more than two stories high to the west across the Bay of Bengal, slamming into coastal communities 1,000 miles away. Hours after the quake, Sumatra was struck by a series of powerful aftershocks. Researchers say the earthquake broke on a fault line deep off the Sumatra coast, running north and south for about 600 miles or as far north as the Andaman and Nicobar islands between India and Mynamar.
"It's a huge rupture," said Charles McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center near Honolulu. "It's conceivable that the sea floor deformed all the way along that rupture, and that's what initiates tsunamis." Tsunamis as large and destructive as Sunday's typically happen only a few times in a century.
A tsunami is not a single wave, but a series of traveling ocean waves generated by geological disturbances near or below the ocean floor. With nothing to stop them, these waves can race across the ocean like the crack of a bullwhip, gaining momentum over thousands of miles. Most are triggered by large earthquakes but they can be caused by landslides, volcanoes and even meteor impacts. The waves are generated when geologic forces displace sea water in the ocean basin. The bigger the earthquake, the more the Earth's crust shifts and the more seawater begins to move.
Most tsunamis occur in the Pacific because the ocean basin is rimmed by the Ring of Fire, a long chain of the Earth's most seismically active spots. Marine geologists recently have determined that under certain conditions, the U.S. East Coast and other heavily populated coastlines also could be vulnerable. In a tsunami, waves typically radiate out in directions opposite from the seismic disturbance. In the case of the Sumatra quake, the seismic fault ran north to south beneath the ocean floor, while the tsunami waves shot out west and east.
Tsunamis are distinguished from normal coastal surf by their great length and speed. A single wave in a tsunami series might be 100 miles long and race across the ocean at 600 mph. When it approaches a coastline, the wave slows dramatically, but it also rises to great heights because the enormous volume of water piles up in shallow coastal bays. And unlike surf, which is generated by wind and the gravitational tug of the moon and other celestial bodies, tsunamis do not break on the coastline every few seconds. Because of their size, it might take an hour
for another one to arrive.
Some tsunamis appear as a tide that doesn't stop rising, while others are turbulent and savagely chew up the coast. Without instrumentation, so little is known about this tsunami that researchers must wait for eyewitness accounts to determine its characteristics. "It was a big tsunami, but it is hard to say exactly how many waves there were or what happened," McCreery said.
In the hours following an earthquake, tsunamis eventually lose their power to friction over the rough ocean bottom or simply as the waves spread out over the ocean's enormous surface. The international warning system was started in 1965, the year after tsunamis associated with a magnitude 9.2 temblor struck Alaska in 1964. It is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Member states include all the major Pacific rim nations in North America, Asia and South America, was well as the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand. It also includes France, which has sovereignty over some Pacific islands, and Russia.
However, India and Sri Lanka are not members. "That's because tsunamis are much less frequent in the Indian Ocean," McCreery said. "Unfortunately, we have no equipment here that can warn about tsunamis," said Budi Waluyo, an official with Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency. "The instruments are very expensive and we don't have money to buy them." The warning system analyzes earthquake information from several seismic networks, including the U.S. Geological Survey. The seismic information is fed into computer models that "picture" how and where a tsunami might form. It dispatches warnings about imminent tsunami hazards, including predictions how fast the waves are traveling and their expected arrival
times in specific geographic areas.
As the waves rush past tidal stations in the ocean, bulletins updating the tsunami warning are issued. Other models generate "inundation maps" of what areas could be damaged, and what communities might be spared. Not all earthquakes generate tsunamis. The warning center typically does not issue warnings for earthquakes below magnitude 7.0, which are still unusually powerful events.

Associated Press writer Michael Casey contributed to this report.
Copyright 2004 AP

0758 hrs, Dec 27, 2004; a post on - Revisiting the tsunami

Dec 27, 2004
0758 hrs

I find myself angered by the fact that not a single Indian agency issued a tsunami warning. It should have been obvious to any competent geologist that a tsunami was about to follow such a massive oceanic earthquake, and a warning would have saved many people in Sri Lanka and mainland India, if not on the islands. This illustrates the skewed priorities in science funding in India, where bomb makers get the best salaries and facilities while other sciences are neglected. The task of predicting a tsunami would normally fall on the plate of the Geological Survey of India. The GSI has a large presence on the Andaman Islands, where its scientists look for water and oil and pose for pictures on Barren Island. India needs (if it doesn't already have) a research center for earthquakes and tsunamis that is independently funded.

Madhusree Mukerjee

Sunday, December 28, 2014

0157 hrs, Dec 27, 2004: Post on; Revisiting the tsunami of Dec. 2004

Dec 27, 2004

0157 hrs


Situation in the Andaman islands seems to be getting under control. In the last couple of hours after relentless hours of frantically trying to get the people over there, I managed to speak to a couple of my friends in Port Blair. Some are fine, some minor damages, my house - devastated. However, the fate of 45,000 Nicobarese and others stands completely unclear. Just five minutes back at 1.00 in the night I spoke to the PA of Mr. Gyanesh Bharati who couldn't forward much concrete information.

The PTI reported "The fate of nearly 45,000 people living in an area stetching from Car Nicobar Island to Greater Nicobar remains unknown as communication links have totally collapsed. The aerodrome has suffered damages and an official in a disaster management NGO informed me that the airport is submerged. Knowing the location and geography of the spot, it is quite unlikely that sea water can run all that way. But, if that has - it's an extremely serious issue.

I am enclosing telephone numbers of some people over there who might be able to provide some more information on the issue:

Control room: 03192 231945
D.C Andaman: 03192 233089
D.C office Nicobar: 03192 265220/265190 (though all communication links have collapsed)

Fingers crossed
Sharbendu De

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2008 hrs. Dec. 26, 2004: a post on

Dec 26, 2004
2008 hrs

Hello everyone!
Another update. At the first place, thanks to RajSekhar and Mano Gupta 
for being kind enough to call me up to pass on latest informations.
Just spoke to a friend in Androth Island, Lakshadweep. At 11.30 am tides 
were 3.10 metres high (measured by Harbour department). When I called he 
was standing right at the sea beach near their power station. The 
population: 11,000 with most coconut cultivators. The coconuts were left 
on the beach for drying. Guess what? Obviously, all swept away or 
destroyed. They might have to face hard times now. But, casualties - 
none (not offcial). Minicoy - not badly hit, but affected.

Andaman: Port Blair --- Two places majorly hit (as of inputs trickling 
in from friends) - the coastal front facing Jawaharlal Nehru Rajkiya 
MahaVidyalaya which is a popular tourist spot as well favourite spot for 
locals to relax - smashed off ! Completely.

Junglighat in Port Blair is another coastal area and since I personally 
have lived there for years together, do know that its a low-level area 
and inputs indicate major damages. The worst part is my mother lives 
right beside the Junglighat coast (one house behind immediate sea) and 
no information still. All communication lines down.

Nicobar District: Car Nicobar - no news, no information - absolutely 
nothing. Being strategically closer to the Sumatran islands and a 
completely flat island, we just might need to cross our fingers and wait 
for news. Unfortunately again, my father is based in Car Nicobar.

Hope all gets well.
Sharbendu De

Friday, December 26, 2014

Revisiting the tsunami of Dec 2004: andamanicobar group

Dear Friends,
Today is, as we all know, the 10th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004, that influenced and changed the A&N islands like nothing we have known. As we remember what happened and take account of the changes, I thought it will be interesting to go back to the archives of the andamanicobar yahoogroup (that I have been moderating for over a decade) to see what happened here in the immediate aftermath of that event.
What I intend to do over the next few weeks is to re-post one (or perhaps) two posts from the e-group archive corresponding to that day exactly 20 years ago. I thought it will be a good way to remember and also to understand how things transpired and also to perhaps evaluate the value and relevance of this group itself. Before I do that however, I thought I'll also give a little history of the group that might be of interest. The group was started in October 2003 and had about 300 members in December 2004 when the tsunami struck. As would be expected interest in the islands surged and member of the group doubled to about 600 members in a months time. The number, of course, is small but that it doubled was of interest. The group has continued to be active since then with very important and relevant information being made available and rich and lively debates and discussions. The membership stands today at a little more than 1500 and this has roughly been the number for sometime now.

It is also interesting to note that the month of January 2005, the month immediately after the tsunami saw the maximum number of posts for a month on the group till date. That month we saw a total of 263 posts, a number that has not been surpassed yet for a monthly account though the membership has more than doubled.

Dec 26, 2004
1153 hrs
Dear Friends,
Below is the news item from the BBC on a major earthquake that hit South East Asia, earlier in the day. This news item does not mention the A&N at all, but there has been wide spread damage in the islands too. I am sending a separate mail with some initial information that we have gleaned from talking to friends in Port Blair.

Pankaj Sekhsaria

Tidal waves and tremors hit Asia

Significant casualties are being reported following tidal waves and earth tremors in countries across southern and eastern Asia. Large tidal waves striking coastal parts of Sri Lanka have reportedly killed at least 150 people.
Earlier, a massive earthquake, said to measure 8.5, hit Indonesia's Sumatra island at roughly 0800 local time. Earth tremors have also been reported in Bangladesh, while tourist resorts in Thailand have been hit by high tides. After the Indonesian quake, panicked people reportedly fled their homes in the towns of Medan and Banda Aceh, the capitals of two of Sumatra's provinces.
The US Geological Survey measured the quake at 8.5 magnitude. Indonesia's geological position - along the Pacific "Ring of Fire" - makes it prone to earthquakes and volcanoes. Electricity and telephone networks in the area have stopped working, making it difficult to confirm the extent of the damage, the BBC's Rachel Harvey in Jakarta reports.

Ground shaking
Indonesia's worst-hit region appears to be Aceh, a strife-torn province on Sumatra's northern-most tip which has seen heavy clashes between government soldiers and separatist rebels. Several houses in the towns of Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe are said to have been damaged or washed away in flash floods.
A witness interviewed by a local radio station reported seeing nine bodies in Banda Aceh, where part of the town's largest hotel is said to have collapsed. "The ground was shaking for a long time," another witness told the radio station.The impact of the earthquake has been recorded as far afield as the Thai capital, Bangkok, and Singapore.
In November, 29 people died when an earthquake struck Indonesia's eastern province of Papua.


Dec 26, 2004
1155 hrs

Dear Friends,
Some initial information gleaned from friends in Port Blair indicates that there has been widespread damage caused in Port Blair because of the earthquake that hit about 6.30 IST. There reports of atleast two deaths as well. Many of the concrete, multistorey buildings in the city have developed cracks and at least one is said to have collapsed.
The Phoenix Bay jetty is also said to have gone half under water, as the city has been hit by tidal waves. Large parts of Port Blair are said to be without power and the telephone network has also been affected. Minor tremors were reported even as of about 11 am IST.
Car Nicobar, which is a rather flat island is supposed to have been badly hit, but there is no additional information. There is no news from Great Nicobar or the other Nicobar Islands which were even closer to the epicentre of the earthquake in Sumatra in Indonesia. Similarly there is yet no information from other parts of the Andamans such as North and Middle Andamans either.

Pankaj Sekhsaria

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A journey on the Andaman Trunk Road - The Last Wave

A Journey on the Andaman Trunk Road
An extract from 'The Last Wave - An Island Novel'
pg 228-230

...The bus groaned up a steep incline and then picked up speed as the road levelled out. They had been moving for about ten minutes when Seema noticed some movement among the trees just ahead. A young Jarawa woman with red cloth tied around her head and waist emerged from the roadside forest and started to run with the bus at its very front. The bus slowed down and the girl was now running alongside the driver. Seema pushed her head out through the railings of the window to see what was happening. Harish did the same and just about managed to catch the action. The Jarawa girl had stretched out her right hand towards the driver. A hand appeared from the bus and handed her a small packet. She transferred it to her left hand and stretched out her right hand once again. Another packet was passed on to her. Her hands dropped to her side and she moved away from the edge of the road, gazing intently at the shiny packets in her hand. It was a quick and efficient operation. The bus picked up speed again and left the Jarawa woman behind. It was evident from their shape, size and appearance that these were packets of paan masala and tobacco.
‘You saw that?’ Harish asked Seema, as they pulled their heads in.
‘Yes. This is crazy. The boards, the convoy, it’s all meaningless. Paan masala and tobacco to the Jarawas? It will ruin them.’
In a while, the entire convoy again did what it had been clearly instructed not to. It crossed a bridge over a gurgling stream of water and stopped as they negotiated a gentle bend. To be fair, they were forced to stop. They had finally caught up with the two tourist vehicles that had slipped ahead a short while ago. There was a big group of Jarawa here; the prime reason these visitors had undertaken this journey in the first place. The Jarawas had set up camp here only recently, attracted by a good combination of proximity to the road and access to a source of fresh water – the stream that the convoy had just crossed. This was the same group that Pintu had referred to and Justice Singh had also spoken about. All the occupants of the tourists vehicles were now out on the road, feverishly photographing the Jarawa and giving them the bananas and biscuits they had been carrying in the hope of this opportunity.
The look on Seema’s face was one of horror, and one that clearly indicated to Harish that something was about to happen.
‘What the hell is this?’ she fumed under her breath as she fumbled through the luggage-clogged passageway to the exit at the front of the bus. Harish followed. She headed straight for the policeman who sat unconcerned in the vehicle at the very front, chewing a mouthful of paan.

Seema stood glaring at the policeman, gritting her teeth, breathing fire. ‘What do you think you are doing?’ she shouted loud and angry, yanking the policeman out of his stupor. He looked up and down at Seema, stepped out from the vehicle, took a step forward and went ‘Thoo!’ The load in his mouth went flying through the air and created a dark, abstract stain as it hit the road with a splash.
‘Yes?’ he asked unconcerned, as Seema quickly took a small step back.
‘Chan . . . dra . . . shek . . . har Kumar,’ slowly and deliberately she read his name aloud from the badge on his chest. ‘How much money did these guys give you?’ She turned her contemptuous look at the driver of the vehicle. ‘Both of you are finished,’ she said with a bravado that had Harish biting his tongue.
He too was angry, but the absurdity of the situation made him want to laugh – this fuming young woman threatening a rifle- wielding, completely nonplussed policeman and a cowering driver who didn’t know what was hitting him. All the others had also realized that something was going on. They stopped what they were doing and turned towards where the action was now taking place.
‘Madam –’ the policeman began.
‘Shut up,’ she pounced on him furiously. ‘Listen,’ her finger was pointed accusingly at him, ‘I’ve got your name and these vehicle numbers. Just watch now.’
The impact was immediate and all those outside, the tourists, the photographers, even Chandrashekhar Kumar, quickly got back into their seats like little obedient children. Seema, however, was not done yet.
‘So, sir,’ her target now was the middle-aged, balding man who had taken his seat just behind Chandrashekhar Kumar. ‘Got good pictures of naked women?’ This wasn’t a question. ‘Big breasts? You like big breasts? You’ll frame it and put it alongside your wife’s picture, won’t you?’....
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Last Wave@The Earth Mela, Mumbai, Nov. 22

A presentation on the A&N Islands and The Last Wave in Mumbai
At the Earth Mela organised by Sprouts Environment Trust
10.30 am, Nov. 22, Saturday at the Maharashtra Nature Park, Dharavi

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Rediscovering Port Blair in 'The Last Wave - An island novel'

THE LAST WAVE - An Island Novel
Chapter 3
Seema's Return 
Pg 32-33
An excerpt...
...Seema’s homecoming was, from the beginning, a mixed bag of discovery and loss: losing Ahmed Mia forever, but just after rediscovering him, and through him, new nooks and recesses, entire hidden passages of a lavishly rich history. 

Delhi had been exciting but it could never be Port Blair. Delhi was a huge sprawl, soot-laden and suffocating, growing amoeba-like into land that extended infinitely on all sides. Port Blair was still small and compact, easily negotiable, eminently manageable, fresh and airy in a way that only small seaside towns can be. It urged you to breathe deeper and harder. 

Seema knew its little paths and corners better than she knew the lines on her palms. The Mountbatten Cinema with its wooden pillars and old world charm; the saw mill at Chatham where she had become addicted to the smells of freshly sawn timber; Foreshore Road from where ships could be seen entering the harbour as if in a 70 mm wide-screen movie; the marine workshops at Phoenix Bay where history could be held in your hands (her most prized find there was a 1931 lantern from a dismantled ship of German origin); the view of Ross Island from atop Cellular Jail; Japanese World War II bunkers that stood all over like forgotten sentinels; Port Blair’s own Marine Drive that went on and on till it reached Corbyn’s Cove at the other end. 
Homecomings allow an experience of change that is denied to those who never leave. Port Blair had changed significantly in the years Seema was away. It was like a little brat of a city now, discovering simultaneously the pains and the pleasures of growing up, forcing similar discoveries on those who cared for and lived with it; particularly for those who returned. It was far more crowded and chaotic than Seema remembered. There was an increasing restlessness – more vehicles, more speed, more movement, more action, more desire and greater ambition. The nights were longer, the shops bigger, the noises louder and the roads narrower. Garbage now accumulated on street corners and on the roads; dogs had multiplied in direct proportion to the spread of the dirt and filth (Port Blair had seen more cases of dog bites in the last three years than in the preceding thirty); previously unknown entities called beggars and pickpockets had begun plying their trade in the bazaar; street urchins now openly defecated in the overflowing British-era drains and traffic jams were a regular feature in Aberdeen Bazaar. Traffic snarls in Port Blair? Yes, all this and more in just a few years. 

Old wooden Mountbatten Cinema was about to go and a steel and glass structure of a shopping mall was to come up in its place. The old wooden State Secretariat had gone too; everything was being replaced by monsters of the modern age, concrete replacing timber with a rapidity that would soon send termites out of business...

 Cellular Jail, Port Blair

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Monday, November 10, 2014

'The Southernmost General Store of India' in The Last Wave - an island novel

 THE LAST WAVE - An Island Novel

Chapter 22
Nesting Turtles  
Pg 249-250

MV Chowra docked at Campbell Bay, the administrative headquarters of Great Nicobar Island late on Christmas evening. The Range Forest Officer, Mr Das, was waiting for Harish and Seema at the jetty and they set off straightaway for the turtle camp at Galathea Bay forty kilometres away. The road hugged the coast for the most part, riding over muddy brown creeks, cutting through coconut plantations rich with large fruit, and past settlements with large houses made of timber and corrugated tin sheeting. Shastrinagar at the 35 kilometres mark was the last settlement along this road, and it was just as they passed the last house here that Das slowed his vehicle, pulled aside and stopped by a small shop with a huge areca plantation behind it. Potatoes, onions, biscuits packets, slippers, towels, coconuts, packets of grain and spices, all lay together in the few shelves on display in the front. The shop was dimly lit and rather empty otherwise. A kerosene stove buzzed incessantly outside and a small kettle hissed vapour in an unintended duet. The only exceptional feature of the shop was its name, which seemed to have been freshly painted on a big board by the roadside:

Southern Most General Store of India
(6½°N Latitude)
Shastrinagar, 35 kms, Great Nicobar Is.
Proprietor – Balbir Singh

This was an accurate rendering of the shop’s geography; nothing indeed lay beyond Balbir Singh’s little entrepreneurial venture. Everyone who came here for the first time found this amusing and Seema smiled too as she saw the Board. For researchers going into the wilderness beyond, this was the last outpost of modern life.

Harish had been here a few months ago, and immediately recognised the old man sitting on a stool by the stove—the seventy-year-old proprietor with a long, flowing silver beard. He said a polite namaste, and sat down on the bench. The old man appeared to recognize Harish too, and returned his greeting with a pleasant smile.

‘Can we have some tea, Sardarji?’ Das called out from his vehicle, ‘and Harish,’ he continued, ‘please pick up the provisions that you want. You know you won’t get much at the camp. I think you should take some basic stuff—rice, dal, sugar, tea, pickle, some potatoes, onions and maybe...’ he scanned the shelves to see if he could find something interesting, ‘yes, take that tin of Haldiram’s rasogollas, but first check how old it is.’

Tea and shopping done, the visitors started off again. From here, the road went winding up a gentle gradient, then descended sharply and moved along the coast for a little before it cut more deeply into the forest. When it finally emerged, they found themselves at Galathea Bay. Here, at the mouth of the river Galathea, a wide beach of silver sand extended into the distance like a graceful arc of the waning moon. This was one of the best places to watch endangered sea turtles as they came out to nest.

The turtle camp of the Forest Department here was only a small bamboo shack, holed up in a small forest clearing by the beach. Camp Officer Winbrite Guria saluted Das, and said a big hello to Harish. He too had recognised Harish from his last visit. ‘If you need anything, tell Winbrite,’ Das said to Harish, and then turned to Winbrite, who had just unloaded the bags from the vehicle. ‘Ok, Winbrite? I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Winbrite saluted again as Das returned to his vehicle.

The sun had retired for the night, and as was the practice here, the staff had already had their evening meal. Some dal and rice was now set to cook for the visitors. As they waited, Winbrite explained with an apology, ‘Hope you can manage somehow tonight. There is no sleeping place inside the hut, but first thing tomorrow morning we’ll organise something. Madam has come here for the first time, I’m really sorry.’

Harish had been here earlier and knew the forest staff quite well. He had been in these islands for only a little more than a year, but had already travelled quite widely and wildly, covering almost its entire length — from Landfall in the north of the Andamans to the Nicobars in the south, even into parts of the Jarawa Reserve that very few had visited. Improvising had become a way of life; be it shacking up in a police station in a remote village, spending a rainfilled night alongside cows in an abandoned bus shelter, being out at sea for over a week on a dungi or sleeping on the jetty because the evening boat had left ten minutes before schedule, he’d endured it all. Sleeping on a pristine beach like this one, with a starlit sky for a canopy was better than most other situations he’d encountered. He would be fine. He looked at Seema. She seemed pretty alright too.

‘We’ll be fine, Winbrite,’ Harish placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Don’t worry.’

‘Yes, yes,’ Seema quickly added. ‘Don’t worry, Winbrite. I’ll be fine. I’m an island girl.’

It was about quarter past seven by the time the two had their simple meal for the night. Harish now unfurled a huge blue tarpaulin sheet and spread it out on the beach some distance from the turtle camp.

‘Hopefully,’ he said to Seema, ‘we’ll be beyond the high tide line and won’t have to run when the tide comes in. The tide’s beginning to rise, but it’s still a couple of hours from being full. That’s when the turtles will start to climb.’

A cool breeze had started to blow, setting Seema’s long hair aflutter. This was always a very pretty sight and Harish was lost for a moment. He was quickly brought back to the present, however, as the wind picked up speed and the tarpaulin started to flutter. ‘Help me,’ he called out to Seema, ‘before this damned thing flies away.’

They placed their haversacks on two corners and a couple of largish logs on the other edges, to hold down the blue sheet and then settled down on it themselves. It was Seema who broke the silence after a while. ‘You were so quiet, even contemplative, throughout the journey. Something on your mind? Is everything okay?’

‘Things are fine,’ Harish smiled and went quiet again.

Seema waited a while, hoping Harish would say something but there wasn’t a word. Finally, she cleared her throat deliberately, to gain his attention. ‘Harish, I,’ she paused, ‘I was wondering, if you got my letter?’

‘Letter? You wrote me a letter?’ he asked in a tone with genuine surprise.

‘Yes. Why are you surprised?’

‘No, I mean... yes. I got it. Of course I did.’

‘You did!’

‘Yes,’ Harish continued, ‘that postcard from Delhi with the dates of your arrival in Port Blair, and those too were wrong.’

‘Oh, that. Not the postcard... It was after that, a much longer letter.’ Seema paused and Harish waited for her to say something else. ‘Okay,’ she said dejectedly, ‘let it be then!’

‘Arre, what happened?’

‘No, Harish, it’s okay. I’ll just stroll along the beach for a while. You sleep now. Goodnight!’

She got up and walked away before he could say anything.

Harish was intrigued. ‘Seema’s written me a letter, and a long one? What could it have been? And why did she walk away like that? I’d better ask her tomorrow—don’t want so much hanging in the air,’ Harish thought as he sat staring at the sky and the ocean. In a while, he pulled out the mosquito net from his sack and tucked it under his head, zipped open his sleeping bag, snuggled in and closed his eyes. Seema, meanwhile, had reached the far end of the white sands. She stood here for a few minutes watching the waves before turning to walk back.

Note: The 'real' Southernmost General Stores of India was swept away in the 2004 tsunami.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Last Wave@Popular Book House, Pune

The Last Wave's now available at Popular Book House, Deccan Gymkhana, Pune

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Giant Leatherback in 'The Last Wave - an island novel'

THE LAST WAVE - an island novel

Chapter 22
Nesting Turtles
Pg 256-258

...‘Keep your distance or you’ll spook her,’ Harish whispered to Seema just as she was thinking of walking up to the animal. ‘This,’ he said, in a voice full of reverence and awe, ‘is what we came here for – the Giant Leatherback turtle, one of the greatest travellers of the world’s oceans, the gentlest giant if there ever was one and amongst the most vulnerable.’

Seema watched intently as the turtle dragged herself a couple of feet and stopped for rest. She was panting heavily. With every bit of air she inhaled, the bottom of her neck swelled like a small balloon. She exhaled, an equally laborious process, and then inhaled again. Then her whole body, nearly 400 kilograms of marine muscle, shuddered as the front flippers came into action. She dragged her body a couple of feet more and then stopped again to rest. ‘What effort,’ Seema thought to herself. She remembered seeing on the National Geographic, just a couple of weeks ago, an underwater film on corals that had some significant turtle sequences as well. The camera had followed a green sea turtle gliding gracefully and effortlessly amidst the incredible shapes and colours of that beautiful coral garden. To now see another turtle struggling so on land was a jolt. The turtle, however, was here of her own volition, the immutability of her instinct, of the timeless process of evolution. She was here to lay her eggs, she had to undergo this labour – she had no choice.

Three quarters of an hour of laborious digging, now with her rear flippers, created a perfect excavation, a cylindrical hole about a foot and a half deep. She then positioned herself on top of the nest hole and readied herself. Harish shone the light of his torch into the nest as the eggs started to pop out in a continuous succession. Sparklingly white, perfectly spherical, a little smaller than a tennis ball. Coated in a sticky, slimy fluid, they fell slowly in ones and twos. Winbrite and his team had also arrived, careful to approach from behind and not anywhere in the line of sight of the huge creature. An error here and she’d be spooked; all the labour wasted as she followed her instinct and returned to the safety of the sea, her eggs unlaid.

The team were an experienced lot. As the eggs began to fall, one of them sprawled on the sand, stomach down. He stuck his hand into the nest and began to bring out the eggs. These were then carted away immediately to the fenced hatchery further up the beach, where they were laid back into pits similar to the one the turtle had excavated. This had to be done to protect the eggs from being poached, particularly by the feral dogs that had proliferated here in recent years. By the time the turtle had finished laying all her eggs – a total of 101 – Winbrite’s team had successfully carried all the eggs away, to a safer place.

Unaware of the benevolent designs of the people standing behind her, the turtle began the reverse process. Using her rear flippers, she began to pull sand back into the nest hole that should have held the eggs. The nest hole filled up in a few minutes and then she began her laborious crawl back towards the ocean, leaving her eggs to their fate. This is where the sea turtle was different from the crocodile. It was not in her code to be the protective, aggressive mother. She’d done the best she could, and the rest was to be left to nature and the elements.

So far, Seema had been completely engrossed in the activity of the turtle. She had taken notice of every flick of the flippers, every breath, every single groan that emitted from somewhere deep within the creature. Now, as the turtle headed back, Seema was overwhelmed. She stood for a moment, tilted her head up a little to look at the sparkling sky, opened her arms to embrace the heavens above and took a deep breath, then another, and yet another. On this remote beach of soft white sand, on this magnificent, mysterious night, she had just had a rare privilege. An ancient creature, the renewal of life, an extraordinary event; she was grateful to be alive.

‘Seema,’ Harish’s voice came wafting through the moist breeze, from the direction in which the turtle had just headed. ‘Come here quickly.’

She trotted across to a point just above the waterline, where the ocean waves thrashed tirelessly at the bottom of the beach. At the water’s edge here, the turtle had sensed that extra bit of moistness in the sand below her. This seemed to bring additional life into the tired body – very much the traveller who was now in sight of her destination. She waited for the next offering from home, another gently lapping wave that just about reached her neck. It was precisely the vitalizer she needed. There was extra energy in those tired flippers as she vigorously hauled herself down the final gentle slope. She’d covered a few feet by the time the next wave came in. Her pace quickened, aided perhaps by the fact that she was now on sand that had gone soft and gooey with the water that was churning underneath her. She was completely engulfed even as this wave withdrew, and was much deeper in the water by the time the next one came along. Harish and Seema walked as far as they could into the water, trying to keep pace with the turtle, holding hands to keep their own balance in the midst of the tireless waves. Finally, they could go no further. They stood silently, watching the retreating hump of the turtle’s wet back as it glistened in the white light of the soft moon. Then she was gone.

The Giant Leatherback leaves behind her flipper marks as she returns to the ocean after nesting

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Last Wave@The Loft, Pune, October 27, 2014

Thanks to Khushru and Rustam for the pics...and to all who came for what what a very nice evening.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Organic Jarawa: An episode in a novel about the Andamans comes eerily close to reality

Organic Jarawa: An episode in a novel about the Andamans comes eerily close to reality
The News Minute | October 26, 2014 | 10.54 am IST
The question of how two French filmmakers ventured into the Jarawa Reserve to make a film, has uncanny parallels with a novel about the Andamans published in May this year.
French filmmaker Alexandre Dereims has been in and out of the reserve for three years, filming within the reserve into which entry is restricted. Following news reports about the film first by editor Denis Giles, the local administration has lodged cases against the filmmakes and has also sent them a notice restraining the release of the film.
The Last Wave
Read: How did two French filmmakers enter restricted Jarawa territory, shoot a full-fledged movie?
This incident, bears striking resemblance to one of the sub-plots in the novel The Last Wave, authored by journalist, researcher and photographer Pankaj Sekhsaria. Published in May, the novel is about the Andaman Islands and its people. The Jarawas are central to the novel. 
In an interview with The News Minute in August, Sekhsaria described his novel in these terms: “If you see in the novel, one never really enters the Jarawa forests. It’s a story about the fringes, about that interface (between the settlers and the Jarawas), the challenges that the cultures face. My attempt is that: What happens when these two cultures interface. I don’t go to either the Jarawas, or to the settlers, even though I know the settler world more.”
Pankaj Sekhsaria1
This has always been at the heart of the debate about the Jarawas and also the Andamans. Scientists have called the Andaman forests as one of the most pristine forests left on earth, untouched by human activity. Until two decades ago, the Jarawas were hostile to the settlers of the islands, not permitting anyone to enter their forests. Things changed after one encounter in late 1990s, that Sekhsaria wrote about for Frontline, when it first happened.
Sekhsaria has visited the island several times in the last 20 years, and the sub-plots of the novel, are various sides of the “interfaces” among the people, and between the people and the environment.
In the novel, researcher David finds a foreign photographer inside the reserve and loses his temper with the man, who is then forced to leave.
Read: I wrote a novel because I felt this was a story that needed to be told: Pankaj Sekhsaria
In his blog, lastwave, Sekhsaria reproduced this portion of the book with the introduction:
“The ongoing 'Organic Jarawa' documentary making saga has prompted many friends to write in pointing to the uncanny similarity between what's happening now and the episode in 'The Last Wave' involving the British photographer Michael Ross and before that, the French photographer, Henri...”
Read the relevant portion on at the following link

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Two Intruders in 'The Last Wave'

The ongoing 'Organic Jarawa' documentary making saga has prompted many friends to write in pointing to the uncanny similarity between what's happening now and the episode in 'The Last Wave' involving the British photographer Michael Ross and before that, the French photographer, Henri... 

Here's the entire incident as it appears in the novel from Page 152-154

THE LAST WAVE - an island novel

Chapter 13
Two Intruders

... ‘Who do these guys think they are?’ David started off, once the intruders were gone, ‘This is not the first time it’s happened. Two years ago, there was this French guy, also a photo-journalist, who had come to the Institute. He told me he was interested in wildlife, forests and the tribal people on the islands. He was good,’ David paused, ‘but only as a photographer. He showed me some of his pictures from the Sarawak forests and they were really good. Actually stunning.’
Harish was all ears.

‘He was desperate to get into these forests, to get some Jarawa pictures. I suspect that he made a promise to some publication that he would do it – maybe he’d even taken a big advance. I was categorical, telling him he wouldn’t get permission, that he should not try even. He was unwilling to listen. You know what the guy did? “David,” he told me, “See I need to get those Jarawa pictures – at any cost. I can pay you and the Institute any amount if you help me get in there.”’

‘Really?’ Harish finally spoke.

‘Exactly. I couldn’t believe it myself. Did he think I was a pimp or something? I was really angry, but not as much as I was today,’ David shrugged. ‘I asked him to leave immediately.’

‘And then?’
‘Yes, and then to my shock and horror, three months later, I get this packet in the post from France, from this guy, Henri . . . something or the other – I don’t remember. Inside was a six-page colour pull-out – a centre-spread from some French magazine with fifteen pictures of the Jarawas. This Henri guy was taking his revenge. There was no need for him to send me that feature, but it was good that he did. It got me wild. A disproportionately large number, ten of the fifteen pictures, if I remember right, featured women. It was nauseating – clearly, many of the Jarawa women had been asked to pose. The corniest was a wide-angled picture of a well-proportioned Jarawa woman reclining in the crystal waters of the coast, her head resting on her hand, her breasts thrusting into the camera. He’d obviously got her to do it. Shameless voyeurism, complete vulgarity. I found out later what the caption said. “An innocent creature of mother nature, on the virgin coast of the Andaman Islands.” What was he doing? Trying to create that noble, untainted savage? Can it really get worse? What a bastard!’

‘David!’ Harish didn’t really know what to say.

‘No, Harish, listen. Remind me to show you the feature when we get back and you’ll see what I mean. It’s worse than those pictures of naked Jarawa women that are sold and bought openly in the Port Blair bazaar. There are no pretensions here. At least it is honest. And there’s more – in that set of fifteen pictures, there was one small one that featured the photographer himself. It had obviously been taken by the person who had accompanied him there. There was this white man in the middle with his arms around a Jarawa man on his left and a woman on his right. And you know what? A black band had been deliberately placed across his eyes, blanking out his identity. Such cowardice. Now you tell me . . .’

Harish was quiet. He had nothing to say.

‘And there was a biographical note at the end of that feature,’ David continued, ‘that Henri whatever was an award-winning photo- journalist who had not only risked potential attack by the dangerous Jarawas, but also taken his chances with the Indian law to get these pictures. Do they have such contempt for their own laws as well?’
‘And who was this other person who might have taken this Henri in there?’ Harish asked, intrigued.

‘That is what I wanted to find out and I did. That Michael whom we just met, what was the last name?’

‘Ross,’ Harish prompted.

‘Yes. You know Harish, that Ross – he’s also right and that’s the tragedy. What’s the point of shouting at and fighting his type when those who make it happen are your own people. When the rot is within, why blame the outsider? When I saw that French photo feature – I was so enraged that I went straight to Ranjit. I don’t go to him often, but he’s a good friend.’

‘Ranjit . . .?’

‘S. Ranjit, the intelligence chap. The Intelligence Bureau fellow in Port Blair. I have got to introduce him to you as well. We’ll do it when we are in Port Blair next. It didn’t take too long to find out. It was Shiva who had organized that trip for the Frenchman. Ranjit gave Shiva a good shouting. I was there. He was even threatened with jail if found doing this again. Shiva promised it was the last. Never again, he had said with tears in his eyes. He seemed terrified. Maybe he was, but obviously it’s worn off. I don’t see him stopping. It’s good money – the curse of the white man’s wealth. The bloody exchange rate! You know,’ he said, more thoughtful now, ‘the Japanese, even the Americans, the others with a lot of money don’t seem too interested in stuff like this. Hardly ever seen any of them. It’s largely these Europeans, still carrying their white man’s burden, aren’t they?’

‘David,’ Harish interrupted tentatively, recalling what Ross had said, ‘What about the two nights with the Jarawa women. Is that true? Is that really happening? Where?’

‘I have only heard about it once before,’ David said with resignation. ‘Never thought it was true, but maybe I am wrong. I was told it happens at some points along the road – it’s difficult this side, but you never know.’

‘But why would the Jarawa women agree? What about their community?’ Harish was really troubled. ‘How does one make sense of this?’

‘What can I say, Harish?’ David sounded irritated and angry again, burdened, it seemed, with more than he could deal with. ‘You know what my problem is? I get involved with too many things. Is it my bloody job to keep tabs on Shiva and fight with that Michael Ross?
Am I the only one worried about these forests and the Jarawas? Why can’t I just fucking stick to surveying my crocs and turtles?

Don’t I have enough on my plate already?’ He was now speaking as much to himself as he was to Harish. ‘I think I was too nasty. Do I have the right to be angry like that? I didn’t behave well with that Michael fellow, did I Harish? What do you think?’
David’s questions caught Harish completely by surprise. He had, in fact, drilled to the very bottom of Harish’s own unarticulated discomfort.

‘I don’t know David,’ was all he could offer. ‘What can I say?’.


Follow the developments on the islands and the specific Organic Jarawa case on 

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Jarawa Tribal Reserve: A Potemkin Village?

Jarawa Tribal Reserve:
A Potemkin Village?
By Zubair Ahmed

*[Potem'kin vil'lage: a pretentiously showy or imposing fa├žade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition.]

Is everything fine inside the Jarawa Reserve, especially during the last two years, when major steps were taken and stringent laws enacted to contain poaching of Jarawa resources as well as keep a tab on tourists ogling at them in the garb of visiting limestone caves?
Everybody was under the good impression that things are under control, and the syllabus is not yet out of context. However, the perception is deceptive. The constant lip-service did keep them away from the glare of media as well as the activists. Ecological and tribal concerns might have remained at the fore while discussing development, but the system never strained to do anything concrete to translate the concerns on the ground. Nevertheless, bureaucratic approach did enough irreparable damage.
When Alexandre and his team could hoodwink the whole system and enter the Jarawa Reserve, and remain with them undetected and unnoticed for days and weeks, that too several times during last three years, isn't it time to realize that many things are not right, and it might require some kind of willpower to accept the fact and take some bold decisions, without fear or favour.
From police, intelligence, defence, coast guard, forest and tribal dept, nobody had a clue about the Organic Jarawa documentary project, until Alexandre himself revealed it. Isn't it shocking that such kind of breach could be a potent threat to the security perceptions of the territory? Lots of questions can be poised why we were in dark about the incident.
Why such intelligence and security lapse on the side of our defence and police? How porous and vulnerable is our West Coast? Why the operations went undetected by the forest department inside the Reserve? What happened to all the tall talk about the strategic importance of the Islands, when the most sensitive part of the territory, already forbidden to the citizens of the country is wide open for someone who enters unnoticed and does whatever he wants?
In the face of such blatant lapse, how can the Administration claim that the tribe is well protected from evil forces? In fact, Alexandre and his team has proved how weak, our system is. He has proved beyond doubt that the territory is not protected as claimed. Instead of looking out, its time we look inside and plug the holes.
Why is there lack of coordination between different agencies involved? When we poised this question to Prof Vishwajit Pandya, a senior Anthropologist and Hony. Director, ANTRI, he said, “When the defence forces can have a combined command, why can’t the Islands have an “Environmental Force” involving all three agencies – Tribal Welfare, Police and Forest Dept. We need to see the picture in totality and not as separate entities. I had suggested this to the Administration, but the response is not encouraging.”
Whenever a breach is brought to the notice of police or forest by AAJVS, there begins a marathon blame-game. Conflicting interests play crucial role in the outcome, and most interestingly, what the Administrator can do is just appeal them to work in unison to achieve the desired ‘unknown’ goal!
The rhetoric that the Andaman and Nicobar Administration is committed to safeguard the interests of the vulnerable Jarawa tribe is nothing but a charade, or how did four small Jarawa kids lost their lives in the last three-four months, due to negligence of the pharmacist posted with AAJVS? Very strong documentary evidence proves that expired Amoxicillin and other drugs were administered to the tribes, and there were clear carelessness in attending to post-natal care of Jarawa babies, resulting in death. Why no action was taken when the matter was brought to the knowledge of the higher ups?
It’s true that ANTRI is playing a very vital role in redefining the discourse and addressing policy issues, and implementing very unique projects in education (Project Angkatha) and clothing (Project Kangapu) that would show results in the long run. The role of AAJVS in executing the projects designed by ANTRI is also encouraging. But, on the ground, there seems to be disconnect, which is shocking.
The Jarawas could keep the whole Organic Jarawa episode a secret for such a long time literally startles. In fact, the poachers or those collaborators, who helped the film crew holds more influence or the Jarawas trust them more than the AAJVS staff is a fact, which has serious repercussions.
“Normally Jarawas won’t say anything unless asked, and in this case when they got so much goodies from the film crew, they knew what to do,” says Prof. Pandya.
The conviction one can see on the ground does not reflect at the top echelons, which conveniently affects the whole process. Wary to take decisions, and the protracted delay inflicts the system. The suffocating check the bureaucrats exercise on the social workers and the experts will not help in yielding any results. Until and unless the system is liberated from the clutches of babus, whatever we get to see from inside the Reserve would be through some Alexandres, Thiery Falises or Oliver Blaises.
One needs to open eyes and do a reality check or when the bitter facts explode with full force, it would be very late.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Last Wave@The Loft, Pune

...a presentation on the A&N islands, readings from The Last conversation with Erica Taraporevala...
Venue: The Loft, Bottee Street, Camp, Pune
Date: Monday, October 27
Time: 6.45 pm


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Last Wave - A Million Tsunamis

The Last Wave, A Million Tsunamis
Pankaj Sekhsaria, The Last Wave: An Island Novel, Harper Collins, 2014. 312 pgs.

A but-of-course smile touched his lips. 'I'll find my question…' Harish whispered to the empty room, as he saw the semblance of a destination emerging through all the clutter and confusion that surrounded him. 'And I'll find the answer too.' (The Last Wave)
Pankaj Sekhsaria's debut novel resonates with questions; the answers are not as easy to find.
We meet, the author and I, for a discussion of the book before a small but involved audience. Having written scores of articles on the Andaman Islands and related issues, what prompted the academic-journalist-activist-researcher to write a novel? Did the writing of this book help him find answers that may have evaded him in his activist avatar?
His answer is simple and sets the tone for the rest of the discussion.
"It has given rise to more questions," he says.
At the heart of the The Last Wave, a novel of questions and concerns, introspection and exploration, of escape and heartbreak, are the Jarawas, the ancient and original inhabitants of the islands. We see them fleetingly, sometimes close to their territory, sometimes outside it, but never for too long. In a way, this captures the perception others have of them and escalates curiosity. The novel reflects this curiosity through the abject interest of outsiders and tourist companies in the Jarawas as specimens. Along with curiosity, close on its heels, comes a pervasive sense of guilt that subtly underlines the narrative tone. Not individual guilt, but the collective culpability of those who seek to know more about the Jarawas, at different levels and in different ways, the guilt that arises out of intrusion and voyeurism.
The deuteragonists of this novel—Harish the aimless well-wisher, Seema the local-born woman exploring her roots, Uncle Pame the Karen boatman and other scientists, researchers and journalists—exist at the fringes of the central theme woven around the Jarawas and the effect of the outside world on them, their island and their needs.
The fact that India administers the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a quirk of historical fate, a legacy left behind by the British who used it primarily for penal purposes. Located far from the mainland, their geological and topographical context and their demographic habitation on-the-fringes give them a unique identity and requirements. Largely invisible to the residents and visitors to the islands, the Jarawas began to slowly make themselves seen, giving up their traditional defensive hostility and coming out of their forests; sometimes for banana and tobacco consignments, sometimes for casual and amused glimpses of life outside their forests, sometimes, as in the case of Tanumei and Erema, for medical intervention that was once redundant to the self-sufficient and proud race.
The Andaman Trunk Road that cuts through the virgin forests connecting the South Andaman and Middle Andaman threatens to bring this outside world right to the edges of the Jarawa "infested: forests: "''The Jarawas ... are a lost cause anyway. It's too late. The day their hostility went, when that Tanumei fellow was taken to the Port Blair and brought back—the Jarawas lost it. They stand no chance now. In some ways, it's the process of evolution.'"
The narrative sways between possibilities thrown up by various people given their specific interests. Evolution and the modernisation of the "jungle" are the ones most touted—by settlers and government officials. Amid varying and shifting ideologies in which the Jarawas themselves seem to have no say, is it possible at all to create an interface that enables negotiation, or is it completely non-negotiable, left at best to the inevitable cycle of evolution?
The book cover carries the picture of an orchid, Papilionanthe Teres. It stands out, pink and prominent, against the green background with its assortment of images in brown. The flower has its own interesting story embedded in this book of many stories. Along long stretches of the Andaman Trunk Road, the flower blooms only on the logged side of the road; the side with unlogged forests is devoid of its pink beauty. Since the orchid grows only where it gets plentiful sunlight, it is absent from the pristine, "undisturbed forests." Its profusion in stretches of organised tree felling and its complete absence in the primitive forests creates its own narrative of intrusion and destruction. The orchid is metaphor and reality interlaced in a larger narrative that explores the usual tropes of duality—native/outsider, myth/reality, progress/status quo.
The author compares the onslaught of the outside world on the Jarawas to a "relentless tsunami." If the tsunami is relentless, any subsequent wave could be the last wave. At the level of metaphor, the possibilities are varied. At the level of reality, something will give way, sooner rather than later. Will the Jarawas find themselves submerged by the lure of "modern" civilisation and its movies, language, corruptibility and illnesses?
This is the question that looms in the background, overshadowing the other narrative of Harish and his bildungsroman-esque search for meaning, for answers to questions he cannot articulate. Depressed and lost after a broken marriage, Harish accompanies his friend to the Andaman Islands on an assignment and is eventually drawn to its various stories, facts and the fascinating island people, especially the Jarawas and their apparent plight in the face of this "tsunami." Seema is a local-born woman, a descendant of the colony's prisoners on the island. She returns to the island to trace her roots, research and perhaps archive its many narratives. The novel also has an assortment of other characters, who do not drive the plot but exist to provide information and points of view.
The focus on the anthropological and socio-cultural issues is constant, unwavering; emotions, incidents and characters are left suspended, unresolved, not necessarily by chance or deliberately, but by these overriding concerns. The stories of Seema and Harish are not important; David's crocodile research is a device, as is the botanist SK's rant about tree felling and the replacement of pristine forests with plantation forests. What is important is the setting. It is the protagonist, the one that evokes response, throbs with a life of its own as the narrator swings the lens from one corner of the islands to the other, as well as to the turtle nesting beach on Great Nicobar where the tsunami of 2004 wrecks the island. Harish is saved, miraculously, to end up in a hospital bed and ponder over questions.
Story and plot give way to complex issues, yet the title seems to reduce the focus to only one story, the one less important—that of Harish. The book needed tighter editing. It is easy to tick off the list: wafer thin plot, perspective shift, loosely crafted characters, lack of an emotional core, restrictive title. Yet, The Last Wave is a sensitive book meant to sensitise, to raise issues about a place that literature has largely overlooked. It is a rich assemblage of the smaller narratives of an island's past, of lives threatened with extinction, of attempts to appropriate and to subsume, of settler-native conflict, of bureaucratic ham-handedness, good intentions and arbitrary decisions, of loss and love.
The novel is strongly reminiscent of Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide. Was he a major influence, I ask the author. The Hungry Tide made The Last Wave seem possible, Sekhsaria says. Having worked in the Andaman Islands for over two decades, Pankaj knows his subject well. It reflects in his writing of the anthropological, sociological and cultural elements, and it reflects on his face as he explains a slide show on the islands. As the surreal light of the slideshow fades from his face, it is replaced with the glow of giving us "a story that needed to be told". The Last Wave is his eloquent recountal of life on the Andaman Islands—the myths and realities, promises and compromises, hopes and disappointments, histories and meta-histories.