Fact in fiction

Jul 27 2014, 02:24 IST
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SummaryThere’s more to the scenic Andamans than meets the eye—the threatened Jarawa tribe, for instance

As soon as you grab a copy of The Last Wave—an

attempt by academic-activist Pankaj Sekhsaria to pen

a novel around a cause he has been fighting for close to two decades—the first thing you will notice are the sketches on the cover. They are not there without a reason, though.

The half-naked tribal woman, for one, is a member of Jarawa—one of the last remaining tribes of the Andaman and its tropical rainforests, its population notching a pitiable 383 as per the

2011 census, and which forms the core of Sekhsaria’s novel. The Jarawas are said to be following the doomed path of the near-

extinct Great Andamanese and the Onge tribes (“there are more dogs in Port Blair than

Onges in the entire Andaman and Nicobar Islands”, the book reveals) and staring at an uncertain future, often clouded by disastrous consequences.

Then, there are the boat and the crocodile—two other crucial elements of the storyline. The protagonist Harish, which the author likens to an ‘aimless drifter’, “remaining always on the threshold of success, never able to cross over”, embarks on a memorable boat journey with the other

main characters of the novel—Institute of Island Ecology director David Baskaran, their local guides Uncle Pame and Popha, and ‘local born’ Seema—to

survey crocodiles along the ‘Jarawa Coast’.

The voyage changes the lives of Harish and Seema forever, as they get to learn about the history of the islands, their settlements, the challenges facing the native people and the ‘mainland’ Indian settlers, and in the process are drawn to each other.

The most significant of the drawings on the cover, however, is the flower in pretty pink—an orchid actually—called Papilionanthe teres. Forests where the wild flowers were found in abundance saw massive logging and extraction in the past, while the areas that saw none were the untouched ones, the pristine greens of the Jarawa Reserve. In a way, the orchid is a sad reminder of the islands’ reality—the rapid deterioration of the tropical forests.

The Last Wave is a poignant yet engaging tale of a group of tiny

islands, which seldom find a worthy note of mention in ‘mainland India’, save for tourism and administrative purposes. Unless you are an anthropologist or an anthropology student, you will hardly get to read a work of literature so soothingly immersed in that unusual milieu.

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