I had the pleasure this last week of engaging in conversation with Pankaj Sekhsaria, author of the new release, “The Last Wave: an island novel” (HarperCollins, 2014). The conversation was part of the Hyderabad launch of the book, a story that chronicles the turmoil and change that is threatening the existence of the original inhabitants of the Andamans, the Jarawa. Pankaj is a conservationist, activist, freelance journalist and film maker. And as if that is not a long enough list of labels, he is also a researcher on the verge of completing a doctoral dissertation on technological innovation and the notion of “jugaad”.
But about the book. It is a story that weaves through a lot of information about the islands to the south east of India’s tip, islands that are often forgotten by those on the mainland other than as an exotic tourist destination. Harish, the young protagonist who is escaping from a disappointment in his personal life and uncertainty in his career, accepts a short term assignment in the Andamans. Along with a diverse group of companions, he navigates through the culture of the islands, confronts the many conundrums created by the competing demands on the rich island environment, and in the process discovers the question that will drive his own search for meaning. Seema, a “local born” (descendants of prison inmates who decided to make the islands their home) is on her own academic but also personal journey, trying to uncover and record the history of her people. Uncle Pame, a Karen elder, whose people arrived on the islands from Burma, is their guide and translator, while David, who studies crocodiles, leads the team and transfers to them his own passion and curiosity about the fragile ecosystem of the rainforests.
The drama in Seema’s and Harish’s lives happens against the backdrop of a larger, more poignant narrative, about the emergence of the mysterious Jarawa from the forests and the question of their survival in the face of “development” and “progress”.
While some may complain about the thinness of the storyline and the abundance of historical and ecological information about the Andamans, that is in fact the value of the book. For me, it opened a window into a part of India I knew nothing about, apart from the few images of Kala Pani and the infamous Cellular Jail. Pankaj does a good job of steering clear of the “noble savage” depiction of the Jarawa, instead imbuing the text with an ambiguity that many of us feel when confronted with questions of development versus tradition, nature versus modernity, and so on.
For Pankaj, the book has been an attempt to tell the kind of story, with the kind of detail, that journalistic forms do not offer. “If it brings the Andamans into the consciousness and the conversation of readers, then the book would have done its job,” he said.