Book: The Last Wave
Author: Pankaj Sekhsaria
Price: Rs 350
By: Shamik Bag
Away from the greater national consciousness, the little dots in the southeast seas off the Indian mainland which form the Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI) can often mislead in their dazzling natural state. Tear your eyes away from the turquoise waters, the white sand beaches and tropical lushness and what you might hear are the stories of unthinkable wrongs and great human tragedies inflicted on the land and its people over centuries.
In his debut novel, The Last Wave, researcher and veteran ANI-specialised activist Pankaj Sekhsaria employs a wide canvas to join the minutiae of the Andaman story. It is easier said — at its extremes, the ancient negrito tribal communities in the Andaman islands like the Jarawa, Onge, Sentinelese and Great Andamanese are known to have lived here for the past 20,000 years while the Indian Ocean tsunami, which ravaged the islands, is only a decade old. In between, there’s the narrative of colonial exploitation since the British set up a penal colony in 1858, the Japanese occupation during World War II, the settlement of refugees and marginalised communities from the mainland through the previous century and the continuous misfortune visited upon the negrito communities, who face extinction. This follows their interaction with mainland “civilisation” and its misplaced tendencies to denigrate, develop, and fatally disease the “junglees”.
In their losing battle against encroachment, exploitation and acculturation, the Jarawas have the author’s sympathy; in Sekhsaria’s book, as is also widely known, the once-proud natives are now reduced not just drastically in numbers but also to begging around the public road that runs through their territory. He reports their position wisely, not letting it rip through a campaigner’s bleeding heart, but as an unbroken strain within the wider storytelling.
Facts are effortlessly dipped in the palette of fiction as Sekhsaria weaves in the story of the journalist and drifter, Harish, visiting the islands from the mainland, and Seema, a researcher and a Local-Born, an influential group among the settler population in the islands. Among other activities, the duo join in a crocodile survey with characters like Uncle Pame, a member of the Karen community from Burma, settled in the Andamans by the British about a century ago. Then there are Bengali and Tamil refugees, Ranchi natives, corrupt policemen and politicians, egotistical Western photojournalists intent on freezing naked Jarawa women, hapless villagers and manipulative foresters as fringe characters — representative, too, of the key players defining contemporary Andaman polity and society. The crocodile population, as well, is endangered by rapid human infringement.
What Sekhsaria, whose oft-quoted book of non-fiction on the subject, Troubled Islands, could not do since its essays were limited to academic and journalistic writing, he does when dealing with fiction: he invests The Last Wave with an imaginative spiritual core. The book draws on the wellsprings of life forces; it brings to sharp relief the mindless advance of modernity, contrasting it with a natural order of life. Here it is reiterated again that the Andaman Islands — despite being India’s disregarded sentinels — have always been at the forefront of the writ of majoritarianism and the feeble fightback and easy compromises of the voiceless minorities, which is now a global trend.
While this is historical fiction that needed to be narrated, The Last Wave could have resonated with greater intensity among readers had the story been told better. A loosely-coiled plot, moving listlessly towards a somewhat predictable climax, is not helped along often by facile dialogue writing. The contours of the main characters are outlined well, but being largely one-dimensional idealists, they etch no great emotional bond with readers: a death in the end is nearly but a death in the end. The Last Wave, though, is not a novel that should be read for the literary cause it serves.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata