news Tuesday, April 07, 2015 - 05:30

Anisha Sheth | The News Minute | August 25 | 9.06 am IST

The Last Wave is a story about stories.

Stories that emerged over a period of 20 years, some of which are there, waiting to be told, and hints of others which may never be known to us. 

Set in the Andaman Islands, the book is difficult to pigeon-hole, and so is its author Pankaj Sekhsaria. Talk to him for some time, and it is clear that that telling the story of the people of the Andaman’s, its peoples, settlers in the islands, its trees and creatures are very important to him. 

So important, that he felt that he needed to write about it in fiction, a departure from his usual journalistic and research-based writing. Of course, the Last Wave too, took some research. But this was more in the form of checking certain details rather than actively researching for the book itself, he says.

“I wrote this book in two years, but it’s actually taken 20 years, because I had no intention of writing a book when I first started working in the islands 20 years ago,” Pankaj says, adding that he has been a regular visitor to the island for two decades even though he has not actually lived there.

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Pankaj Sekhsaria at a book reading in Atta Galatta, Bangalore

He has written extensively about the islands, its indigenous peoples and its biodiversity. A key incident in the book, about an island settler taking a Jarawa boy out of the forests for medical help is at the heart of the indigenous community’s situation today. That was the first time that the two communities really came in contact. He fictionalised this incident for novel, Pankaj says, based on his essay titled Jarawa Excursions for Frontline magazine when it first happened in 1998. 

“This is a situation that has no precedent in India. There are indigenous communities in the north-east and central India, but none like the Jarawa,” Pankaj says. Several times, in the novel, there are references to how few in number the Jarawa are.

Describing the Jarawa community, Pankaj says they are what is anthropologically called in Voluntary Hostile Isolation. “We don’t know their story. How do they look it? (the island settlers and their world, themselves in relation with the islanders).” 

The settlers were initially a small number when the British first ventured into the islands. The Indian government brought in a large number refugees from Bangladesh in the 1960s, Pankaj says. “A character in the book also says, ‘why did you bring us here’. This was a conflict created in historical reality,” Pankaj says.

Incidentally, while doing some research he discovered that the Indian government itself described in the Gazette in 1964, that the Andaman Forests were “infested” with Jarawas. 

It was this precise situation that he was interested in, Pankaj says. The islanders and the Jarawas do have a relationship: one of conflict. “Even hostility is a relationship. They have a love-hate relationship. It is a story about two cultures which are infused in ways we don’t have a precedence of (in India)”

“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 says.

Pankaj says that it was essentially, an outsider’s story. When one looks at the characters, the plot and structure of the novel, it is argument of all the possible ways to look at the situation: Harish, who wants to protect the Jarawa, Seema an islander who feels they too have a right be there (After all, her own family is second generation island-born), the immigrants who have cleared the forests and created farm land, other indigenous communities who have been in contact with the settlers but not the Jarawa, the researchers and scientists who study everything on the islands.

The only missing voice here, is that of the Jarawa. But it is they who are at the centre of what is happening in the islands. Everyone’s life is somehow influenced by their presence, but no one really knows them, because they allow no one inside their forests.

So how does one go from here? This is what one wonders after reading the book. And this also what was asked to Pankaj during a book reading organized at Atta Galatta in Bangalore two weeks ago. During the book reading, he mentioned there has been a move to rename the islands, reclaim history from the British and make it more Indian. Among the possible new names doing the rounds are the names of freedom fighters such as Jhansi ki Rani, Pankaj says.

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Pankaj Sekhsaria in conversation with journalist Subir Ghosh in Bangalore.

Pankaj argues that the indigenous communities have been around on the island anywhere between 20,000 to 60,000 years. And these islands would have had a name given by these indigenous communities. 

“If you are going to go back in time, why restrict it to 1857. British history in the region is around 150 years, and Indian history is post-Independence. “In a thousand years, what is a hundred years? If we are to be fair, we have to go back to the indigenous communities,” he says.

In all of these contesting narratives, who all claim equal right, it is clear to Pankaj that there can be no going back from here. The islands cannot be emptied of the settlers, of everything else on it. 

“There can be no rolling back. How do we go forward from here, how do we create a fair negotiation? How do we do something that acknowledges the challenges, disappointments and the hopes, (of everyone involved),” Pankaj says, adding that he did not have a solution, and that one needed to be worked out by everyone involved.

In his own words, Pankaj has been an activist, a journalist, a researcher, photographer, a story-teller at the “interface” of environment and communication. 

He said he was asked a by a friend before the book reading, whether the novel was an extension of his activism. Pankaj said he responded by saying that the novel actually stemmed from his “disappointment with activism”.

It failed to achieve certain things and a novel gave him a different way to approach the Andamans. “The novel was a response to that disappointment, and talks about these issues. I dint write the novel because I wanted to be a novelist. I wrote it because I thought it was a story that needed to be told and it can be told in many different ways.”

He said: “It was about resolving things for myself. It allows you to show the categories of compromise. All the characters are making compromises. You have the researchers who are doing things they don’t want to do, doing things they want to avoid but end up doing anyway. The novel allows me to look at backstage… there are things happening on stage and there are the back stories. People are able to see their issues and other people’s issues.”

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