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 

Also see
For more on 'The Last Wave' visit -

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.

The Last Wave - Review by Bittu Sahgal

The Last Wave
A Review by Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, October 2014

I have known Pankaj Sekhsaria for well over two decades and have watched his romance with the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago flourish over the years. As can be seen from his images and texts on the previous pages, he is not merely an accomplished photographer and writer, but a sensitive naturalist as well.
I read The Last Wave with great curiosity, and admire Pankaj greatly for his courage. Writing fiction, in my view, is possibly one of the most difficult tasks imaginable for a naturalist-academic, whose life is founded on fact-filled conservation reports, debates based on hard evidence and battles against those seeking to tear arguments apart on the basis of one line, sometimes one word, out of place.
I enjoyed the book. Its flow and its characters smell right. Harish and Seema are credible, and through them we are made quietly aware of the very complex social web that the Jarawa of the Andamans must negotiate now that they have been ‘befriended’ by the administration.
I cannot say I was particularly carried by the love story in the plot, but I did identify with the underlying horror of tourists treating a most sensitive and civilised tribe such as the Jarawa as curiosities whose nakedness was turned into a tourist attraction. Also the crudity inherent in city-dwellers looking upon the Andaman tribes as just a notch above wild species to be pitied, or horror of horrors, ‘tamed’.
The infamous tsunami that took such a terrible toll on life and property in the Andaman on December 26, 2004, the last wave, is a key part of the plot. The symbolism of that wave and the force of its irresistible wall of water is transparently juxtaposed against the irresistible wave of civilisation, diseases, ambitions and sheer numbers, that are overwhelming the Jarawa.
As I said, I did enjoy reading the book, though fiction-non-fiction is not exactly my bag. To really understand Pankaj Sekhsaria, I would recommend you pour over the previous pages.