Love in the time of development
Pankaj Sekhsaria’s new novel about the Andaman islands turns real life into compelling prose.
The Last Wave is a love story, or rather, two. One is a fairly conventional tale of growing attraction between a man and a woman, thrown together not only by circumstance – confined as they are on a dungi, a small boat, with their five-person team, exploring a pristine coastline – but also by their shared wonder and concern at all that they see and hear. The other is between a journalist and an archipelago. Pankaj Sekhsaria is in love with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and it shows – in the occasional but compelling lyricism of his writing, and in the reverence with which his characters circumnavigate the Jarawas’ territory, probing its mysteries without quite violating its boundaries:
Riding the darkness and the silence, announcing the takeover of the advancing night, rising from somewhere deep in the surrounding dark forests, came the high-pitched, haunting yodel of the Jarawa. It wasn’t loud, but it was clear, with the mysterious quality of a very real dream. The pace was gentle to begin with, the beat unhurried. Then, in measured steps, it began to increase, picking up pace in slow notches, and rising quickly to the high-pitched crescendo of a fast, foot-tapping rhythm… [until] it died abruptly, like the sharp snapping of a delicate thread. In those few moments, the silence re-surfaced clear and crisp, a glowing, starry, spread on a sheet of night-coloured paper.
Since the 1990s, the author has devoted himself to defending all that is magical about the emerald isles, their coral-studded waters, and the ancient culture that thrives within its glorious and primeval rainforest. The novel is a first for Sekhsaria, who has several other identities – journalist, environmentalist, activist, photographer, and academic.
While most writers would use the Andamans merely as an exotic setting for a story about humans, for Sekhsaria, the exquisite but fragile archipelago is the true protagonist.
In each of these personas, however, he has served the islands and its peoples, and his turn as a novelist proves to be no exception. Sekhsaria has written magazine articles about the Andamans; campaigned to protect the Jarawa, the hunter-gatherers who live within the strip of great evergreen rainforest along the western coast of two Andaman islands; published academic articles on the archipelago’s environment, development, and strategic role in India’s defence policies; co-edited a collection of papers on the Jarawa’s encounters with outsiders; and, most recently, exhibited photographs on the archipelago’s natural wonders. He has annoyed many of the islands’ mainstream residents by advocating that the road through the Jarawa territory be closed, because it brings in pernicious influences. And yet, when the December 2004 tsunami washed away thousands, and the administration dithered, it was the Yahoo webgroup – andamanicobar – which Sekhsaria initiated and still administers, that became crucial to disbursing information and coordinating aid efforts. So, while most writers would use the Andamans merely as an exotic setting for a story about humans, for Sekhsaria, the exquisite but fragile archipelago is the true protagonist. Through the eyes and ears of the novel’s characters, we learn about the islands and its intriguing communities.
Seema is a 27-year-old “local born”, descended from the first Indians who arrived on the islands in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Her great-great-grandfather, a Muslim, had ended up in the penal colony of Port Blair, established in 1858 by the British, for beheading his sister’s rapist; her great-great-grandmother, a Hindu, was a freedom fighter. In the Andamans, such interfaith unions were common. Seema has recently returned after studies on the mainland in order to research her own people, the local borns. Harish, a mainlander, is searching for the meaning of life after a disastrous marriage by touring the islands with a reporter friend. Uncle Pame, the elderly Karen boatman, is perhaps the most remarkable character in the book: he has witnessed the Jarawa slay his parents, but nonetheless believes they have a right to defend their forests from outsiders.
For decades, Jarawas killed intruders who entered their territory, and were killed by them in turn. The Last Wave is set in 1998, when the Jarawa started emerging from the forests without arms. In his fictionalised account, based on the real-life events that led to the Jarawa being pacified, Sekhsaria describes an injured Jarawa teenager, who is treated at the hospital in Port Blair. Once he is exposed to goodies such as TV and then returned to the forest, he starts bringing his friends to a local jetty to meet outsiders. The settlers greet the naked visitors from the jungle with a mixture of fear, curiosity, titillation, and condescension, as Harish witnesses on one occasion. A young man in tight jeans brushes against a Jarawa woman’s bare bottom, till she pushes him over; a policeman’s wife dresses a Jarawa mother with bangles and sindur, Hindu markers of marriage, in an attempt to ‘civilise’ the savage; while a radio reporter, thrusting her mike into the face of a Jarawa youth, is horrified at the utterly un-broadcastable Hindi cuss-words that emerge.
Even as Harish observes the encounter, he becomes aware of an older Jarawa man standing to one side, watching all that is taking place with obvious disapproval, but holding back from intervening directly. “He was like a rubber band pulled and held taut; unpredictable, but ready to act, brimming with potential energy, but extremely vulnerable at the same time. A release now would mean an explosive outburst.” Suddenly the man looks straight back, and his gaze knocks “Harish back with an intensity more raw than a street fighter’s well-directed punch”. The book implies that the man somehow intuits that this strained bonhomie between two alien peoples, this breaching of a formerly sacrosanct boundary, could only portend evil – and that Harish knows this too.
The Jarawa are one of the few remaining indigenous peoples on the Andamans. Tens of thousands of years ago, some of the first humans on the planet had arrived on the islands, and remained almost entirely isolated until British colonisation. As a result, they had never been exposed to – and never developed immunity to – the contagious diseases that plague our densely populated society. Whereas the islands probably contained 10,000 or so inhabitants to begin with, counting all the tribes, including the Jarawa, the Great Andamanese tribes and the Onge, contact with outsiders led to epidemics that felled the natives with astonishing rapidity.
The ten Great Andamanese tribes were the first to be pacified, in part during the 1858 massacre known as the Battle of Aberdeen in which their concerted attack on Port Blair – the first British settlement – was crushed by cannon-fire from a British ship moored offshore. Subsequently, British administrators introduced “artifical needs”, as one official put it, supplying rum and other goods to the tribesmen and women in order to foster addictions that would force them into “increasing intercourse with a superior race”. The resulting ‘intercourse’ was not just through material exchanges but sexual as well: many Great Andamanese women were raped by outsiders, with the result that syphilis and other such introduced diseases took a massive toll. In the 1950s, Indian administrators were able to find a mere 19 survivors, whom they relocated to tiny Strait Island. Now the Great Andamanese number some 60 mixed-race individuals. Boa, a Great Andamanese woman, and the last survivor of the Bo tribe, died in 2010, taking with her an entire language and culture.
Next to succumb were the Onge of Little Andaman, who were similarly crushed – first by a series of horrific retributions for attacking visitors to their island, and second by gifts left onshore by a 19th century administrator, MV Portman. The administrator also brought Onge individuals over for tours of Port Blair, in order to impress upon them the technological and numerical superiority of the outsiders, and the pointlessness of continued resistance. Unsurprisingly, soon after pacification, the Onge too started falling prey to diseases, and only about 110 of them are now left. When I visited their settlement in 1998, the depression was palpable. This was a people who knew that their days were numbered. In 2008, eight Onge men and boys died after drinking from a jerry can that they had allegedly found on the beach, believing its contents to be alcohol.
Subsequently, British administrators introduced “artifical needs”, as one official put it, supplying rum and other goods to the tribesmen and women in order to foster addictions that would force them into “increasing intercourse with a superior race”.
The Jarawa were third in line, or the twelfth, depending on how one counts the different indigenous groups. With the Great Andamanese dying off by the early-20th century, they spread north-ward to occupy the emptied forests of south and middle Andaman, and attacked logging operations in what they now considered to be their territory. Retaliating, British expeditions tracked the Jarawa, surrounded their villages by night and shot into them. “Like the Bushman of South Africa, the Jarawa is implacable and will continue to fight to extermination,” predicted the Census of India in 1931.
It was the Indian administration that, following the methods detailed by Portman in his two-volume treatise, A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese, finally pacified the Jarawa. Beginning in the 1970s, boatloads of anthropologists and officials began to visit Jarawa beaches to leave gifts of cloth, rice, and iron tools. Over the decades, the Jarawa acquired such a taste for these items that they began night time raids on the villages to get hold of them. It was during one of these raids that the youth, described in The Last Wave as Tanumei, was injured, found, and treated in Port Blair, and – once he was thoroughly impressed by the wonders of industrial civilisation – was released. Not long after he started bringing his compatriots out of the jungle, epidemics followed, their effects substantially mitigated by prompt medical attention from a dedicated local doctor, who appears briefly in Sekhsaria’s account as Dr Bandyopadhyay.
In the years since, poachers have induced addictions to tobacco and alcohol among the Jarawa youth, who are less suspicious of outsiders than the elders, in order to easily access the resources within their territory like rattan, resin, honey, fish and the highly lucrative mangrove crabs. The Jarawa forest is rich with game, far richer than any other forests near the settlements, because the tribe had always defended it with their lives. Now that they have been pacified, the Andamans’ politicians are eyeing these resources for distribution to their respective vote banks, mostly poor immigrants from Bengal. That imperative, in turn, has intensified calls to ‘civilise’ the Jarawa by moving them into settlements and making them dependent on dole, as with the Onge and the Great Andamanese before them.
“They live a very miserable life in the forest, sir – no home, no proper food – moving around from one place to another, digging roots, hunting, fishing,” expounds politician Samaresh Basu, to Harish, Seema and others. “We need to teach them how to live proper lives, wear clothes, make houses, do some agriculture… bring them into the mainstream so that they can live life normally, enjoy the benefits of civilization and modernization.” This argument, variations of which have been repeatedly voiced by Members of Parliament from the archipelago, is not based on any awareness of the quality of life of a hunter-gatherer. Moreover, such attitudes wilfully ignores the depression, alcoholism, and sexual abuse that ravages indigenous peoples once they are forced to become an underclass in our phenomenally hierarchical society.
Yet all one has to do is ask someone right there, who has seen it all. Nau, a Great Andamanese woman in her fifties, had spent her childhood with her family in a forest, before her group was resettled on Strait Island. I had first met her in 1998, when I researched my own book on the Andamanese, but I had a chance to interview her again in December 2014. She looked sad and broken, unlike the vivacious and self-confident person I remembered from before. Asked what she thought should become of the Jarawa, this was her reply, in fluent Hindi interspersed with English words:
“It seems to me that they should stay where they are, for their own safety. There’s a huge difference between living in the forest and living in the town. In the jungle you can get everything; here you don’t get so much of what we tribals need and want. I liked so much the way we used to live before [in the jungle], not since then. I loved it. We lived free. Whatever I wanted to eat, I could eat: fish, mice, crabs, whatever… We lived with so much azaadi. Absolutely free, no tension, nothing! Eat what we want, live in the forest, sleep on the sand, sleep in the forest, do whatever we want. Free!”
Reliving those heady times made her face glow, but the look soon faded away into an expression of infinite sadness. On Strait Island, she said, almost all the men and boys drink heavily. Some of the young women have married Indian men who don’t allow their wives to live as Andamanese, instead forcing them to perform Hindu rites. None of the youngsters speak their native language, nor are they interested in learning the old dances and songs. Only three or four individuals are left with whom Nau can converse in her own tongue, and who remember what it used to be like.
“I feel so very alone. So very sad.” She paused pensively. “What will be left of our culture? Nothing is there. My elders… I remember when it was evening they would explain things to us, call us to do some task with them, say to us, ‘Come, learn, when I am not here who will know these things? When we are not here, who will teach you?’” Her voice breaks. “It was true, what they said. So we learned these things, but now we can’t go forward with teaching the young ones.” The Jarawa “must not become like us,” she concluded; must never experience the unbearable loneliness of being the last of a people dying off the face of the earth.
It isn’t only the Jarawa who are under attack. The forests in which they live in are being systematically destroyed as well. At the edge of the Jarawa reserve, Harish witnesses the felling of a majestic tree, more than 100 feet tall, with “buttresses so thick and huge at the base that a human being could build a small dwelling within them.” When it finally falls, “screaming for the others to make way lest they too be destroyed,” and yet smashing through several smaller trees to hit the forest floor so heavily that the ground shakes, the reader feels like it is a crime as unforgivable as the slaying of a human being. Such trees, which provide the deep, dark, moist shade essential for maintaining the biodiversity of the rainforest, have been cut down, so that all that remains of the once-majestic 25-million-year-old rainforest survives only within the Jarawa Reserve.
The military has floated plans to use several small islands in the Nicobar chain as targets for practicing with missiles – condemning many varieties of flora and fauna to violent extinction.
The rest of the archipelago’s incomparable natural bounty is also slated for destruction. A radar station is to be built on Narcondam Island, which will, in all likelihood, drive into extinction the Narcondam Hornbill, a spectacular species unique to that island. In addition, the military has floated plans to use several small islands in the Nicobar chain as targets for practicing with missiles – condemning many varieties of flora and fauna to violent extinction before any human has even set eyes on them. As if that were not enough, the island chain lies just north of a shipping lane that is vital to Chinese interests, and which the Indian government therefore seeks to control by vastly expanding its naval base on the Nicobars.
Such exploitation of the archipelago’s military potential requires, in its turn, a massive expansion of the existing infrastructure. Accordingly, the government has formulated an INR 10,000-crore (USD 1.54 billion) plan to turn the entire archipelago into a maritime hub, apparently by auctioning off many of the islands to developers through public-private partnerships.
“The ANIs [Andaman and Nicobar Islands] are trump cards of the Indian strategy and can emerge as gatekeepers of the Indian Ocean,” wrote Aniket Bhavthankar, a research associate with the New Delhi-based Society for Policy Studies, in an October 2015 article. But this could only happen, according to Bhavthankar, if “bottlenecks” posed by environmental regulations were overcome. The Minister for Shipping, Nitin Gadkari’s plans to construct no less than 23 ports along the coastline will make Bhavthankar’s prescriptions a reality. That will entail the felling of forests and the razing of beaches, and also result in oil slicks, sewage, garbage and other routine pollution from the vast levels of ship traffic envisaged – damage that the law does not currently allow.
As if on cue, in January 2016, the Minister for Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, visited the islands, and declared a direct onslaught on a 2002 Supreme Court order that has hitherto provided significant protection to the island environment. Sekhsaria, acting on behalf of the Pune-based environmental organisation, Kalpavriksh, had played a key role in bringing the case before the court. The court had decreed the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road, which runs right through the Jarawa reserve – bringing the tribe in contact with providers of alcohol and tobacco and seekers of sex – and also restricted timber felling and sand mining on the islands. Javadekar declared, however, that the court’s misguided orders had hampered the islands’ development, and that he would seek to further develop the road by building bridges and also do away with the curbs on timber felling and sand mining.
Amazingly, the road was never closed because of public pressure: testimony to the contempt with which India’s politicians and administrators regard the highest court in the land. Had it been shut down as directed, and a few small ships provided in its stead to carry the north-south traffic along the islands, the damage to the Jarawa could perhaps have been contained. Developing the road further will only increase the traffic on it and compound the harm. The environmental aspects of the order, which restricted logging and collection of sand from beaches, had, on the other hand, been essentially obeyed, curbing the free-for-all of the earlier era. It was these orders that Javadekar had in his sights.
Far from hampering development, the court had helped to protect the island’s water supply and tourism industry. Dense jungle allows monsoon rains to drip slowly into the earth, replenishing the water table; but when the hillsides are denuded by tree felling, the rain runs right off, carrying with it soil and debris, and smothers the corals with silt. The water table diminishes, the beaches become muddy, and the corals die. Since the Andaman forests had already been systematically felled, as The Last Wave describes, the archipelago has long suffered from a serious water shortage. In peak summer, taps in the average home in Port Blair run for only half an hour, every other day. If deforestation resumes, the water crisis can only intensify. As for sand mining, it will lead to the direct destruction of many beaches, and also facilitate the ingress of salt water, further damaging the water table.
As if that were not enough, Javadekar called for increasing the number of tourists from the current figure of three lakhs per year to 30 lakhs – a number pulled, it seems, out of thin air, with no consideration for the carrying capacity of the islands. Not to be outdone, in November 2015, Gadkari announced that yoga guru Baba Ramdev was being offered an island with a scenic beach and a lighthouse to develop a yoga center. The water shortage alone places such plans in the realm of fantasy. Moreover, this programme is totally incompatible with the vast expansion in ports and shipping, which will damage corals, beaches and forests, as well as the projected increase in tree felling and sand mining, which will finish off what little the ports leave untouched. Anyone who has been to Corbyn’s Cove, an expanse of muddy grey sand at the edge of Port Blair where garbage regularly floats up, will know exactly how attractive beaches are when they adjoin industrial and municipal areas.
What do tourists visit the islands for, if not the pristine white beaches that still remain, the turquoise blue waters, the colorful fish lurking in the corals, the towering, dew-dripping forests – all the rare and exquisite treasures that The Last Wave celebrates? Why would they come when these are gone? The magical thinking behind these grandiose plans leads to the suspicion that the Narendra Modi government sees the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago as a terra nullius: an empty space on which to erect elaborate fantasies of power, glory and riches, leaving the reality check to others. To these men, the Jarawa are no more than junglees to be shoved aside, their remnants nostalgically preserved in museums; trees and beaches are storehouses of cash to be collected, counted and dispatched to the bank; and the archipelago itself little other than an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” that can survive any number of bombs. There is no room in this vision for lyricism or love, whether for human beings or for trees, forests, birds, or any other living creatures.
In the last, most poignant scene in the book, after the last wave – the tremendous tsunami of December 2004 – has washed over him, leaving him bereft, Harish meets once again that Jarawa man who had unnerved him with his fierce gaze. This time, he stares “at Harish for a while and then, tired, and defeated, lowered those intense eyes – a tragic surrender. What an unequal fight this had been.” And yet, in Harish’s empathy for this singular stranger, one finds a shred of hope. For if anyone can save the islands, it will be those such as him, Seema, and Uncle Pame, who have the capacity to love deeply – as well as, of course, their acutely observant and passionate creator and all the readers he happens to inspire.
~ Madhusree Mukerjee, a former physicist, has served as an editor at the Scientific American magazine and is the author of two books, Churchill’s Secret War (2010) and The Land of Naked People (2003).
~ The author has worked with Pankaj Sekhsaria on Andaman-related campaigns in the past.