Pankaj Sekhsaria’s debut novel, The Last Wave: An Island Novel is fascinating for the way it depicts a part of India often ignored in literature: the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, just south of Burma but mostly administered by India. The only other literature I have encountered that is set in the Andamans is Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, and I’m not sure that this should be the place’s sole literary representation! (A ‘feminist’ Lord of the Flies).
Sekhsaria is an academic who works on the Andaman Islands—he has written two non-fiction books on them already—and also writes regular journalistic pieces on them. This depth of knowledge comes through very clearly in this novel, and a great deal can be learnt about the history of the islands, their settlement, the challenges facing the native peoples and the mainland Indian settlers from The Last Wave. But it is more than an anthropological tract, as Sekhsaria intertwines this depth of knowledge with a realistic and somewhat charming love story, running parallel to a plot about outsiders’ attempts to ‘save’ the indigenous Jawara people of the Andaman Islands.
Sekhsaria addresses the issue of how ‘mainstream’, mainland India (which generally means northern and/or metropolitan) perceives and treats the country’s minorities. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands—of which there are several, but the novel focuses on the Jawara people—are considered savages (‘junglees’) by mainland Indians, little more than wildlife. In fact, safari-style tourism still occurs on the Andaman Islands, something that Sekhsaria discusses: “The promotion was blatant and often outrageous” writes Sekhsaria. “’See and feel the primitive dark tribe of the Andaman forests’ went one catch line; ‘A once in a life time opportunity of meeting primitive naked people’, read another.” (p. 226). Of course, as with so many instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication between cultures, women are employed as symbols. Sekhsaria writes of a Bengali tourist to the islands encountering a Jawara woman:
“Here was a woman who was what a woman should not be: a woman not conscious of her body and her nakedness, who had no lajja, no shame. Haldar’s wife held up the Jawara woman’s right hand, picked up a bunch of bangles and slipped them effortlessly over the dark bare wrist.” (p. 65)
However, it must be said that Sekhsaria’s writing is strongest when he is discussing the historical, anthropological or sociological elements that comprise the novel. He does make his language engaging, interesting and befitting the fictional genre, but the other aspects of the novel are rather weak, so I wonder if perhaps non-fictional genres would better suit the author’s talents and knowledge—creative non-fiction, for instance. The overreliance on dialogue—stilted at that—when characters are interacting with each other results in flat characterisation. Too much exposition of inter-personal feeling is left to dialogue. Further (and I give nothing away by writing this), the climactic episode of the 2004 Boxing Day Indian Ocean Tsunami, after which the novel is named, is very poorly written. The drama and devastation is not captured at all. I had to rely upon my memory of watching footage of events to picture what the author was attempting to portray, as the prose itself was not enough.
I did enjoy The Last Wave, though. It is a charming and interesting novel, and unless one is an anthropologist or a student of anthropology, one seldom has much opportunity to learn about the Andaman Islands, so I appreciate Sekhsaria’s foray into this genre.