Saturday, May 16, 2015

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.

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