The papilionanthe teres is of special significance in the Andaman Islands; the wild orchid can be found in abundance on the islands but only in regions where the canopy of the native tropical forest has been replaced with agricultural fields or horticultural plantations, allowing the sun loving plant to flourish. In a way, the flower is a marker of the rapid deterioration of the tropical forests in the area. A picture of this flower adorns the cover of ‘The Last Wave’, a book authored by journalist, researcher and conservationist Pankaj Sekhsaria, which attempts to chronicle the story of this change and the people, cultures and ecology affected by it.
Pankaj, who spent more than two decades working as a researcher and campaigner in the Andamans does so through the experience of a colourful cast of characters - Harish, Seema, a ‘local born’ or a descendant of the inmates of the infamous Cellular Jail, Uncle Pame, a ‘Karen’ boatman whose father came to the islands from Burma in the 1920’s, and the indigenous Jarawa Community.
“ The Jarawa community continues to be a hunter-gatherer society and there is genetic evidence to suggest the Jarawas have been there for over 30-40,000 years and archaeological evidence points to 3000 years at least,” says Pankaj, pointing out the Jarawa tribal reserve on a map. “ The reserve, which covers half the island is the last remaining virgin forest of the islands. Everything else has changed character.”
Across the length of the island is the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) which roughly separates the reserve land from the civilised part of the island. The road, which has been a matter of controversy, features significantly in the novel, says Pankaj. “In 2002, there was a Supreme Court order to close the ATR as there was a lot of historical and contemporary evidence of its negative effects on the island’s ecology and people but there was naturally a lot of protest from those who were using it,” informs Pankaj, who was one among the campaigners who had made a case for its closure. “An anthropologist described the road as being akin to making a public thoroughfare through a private courtyard,” he says, highlighting the injustice the road did to the native Jarawa community who with a population of a few hundreds, are outnumbered by over 1000 settlers.
While ‘The Last Wave’ is Pankaj’s first novel, it is not his first attempt at writing. He has written extensively on the Andaman Islands in numerous national publications and has also penned two non fiction books. The shift to fiction, he says, was to tell the story of the islands in a rounded, wholesome way, through characters and storylines rather than facts and numbers. It also had to do with the frustration he felt as a campaigner after the Supreme Court’s orders were ignored. “They were Supreme Court orders, what more could we do?” he asks(The ATR remains open till date). This frustration led to need to reach out to an audience that will otherwise be uninterested in the islands. “Lastly, there was also a personal aspiration, a challenge to move from writing short, journalistic pieces to a longer work of fiction,” informs Pankaj.
While the Andaman Islands are home to four major tribal groups, Pankaj picked the Jarawas to play a central role in his novel. “This is because they have been at the heart of the controversy and there is also a tectonic shift in the behaviour of the community who were in voluntary isolation until recently. They would kill those who entered the forest with bows and arrows but in 1998 they started coming out of the forest unarmed for reasons we know nothing about.”
The book is, naturally, written from the perspective of an outsider. However, Pankaj’s sensitive understanding of the region and the history of its indigenous people and settlers promises to offer many insights. “What I’ve done is to look at the geographical interface of the forest and the settlement and also the interface of the two cultures. Can we understand the Jarawas through the mirror of the settlers who have lived in the periphery of the forest for over three decades and are perhaps most in touch with them?”
As a conservationist, Pankaj asks difficult questions about how we, as a dominant culture can create a space for indigenous communities. “How can we have a fair negotiation when we can’t even talk their language?” The Jarawas, he says, play a role in the conservation of the tropical forests of the islands. “The survival of the two is intricately linked. Even now, they have conserved most of the forest simply by allowing us not to enter it,” says Pankaj.
“I just want to tell the story of these communities. One can say that the book seeks to highlight the challenges faced by tribal communities and sensitive ecosystems. Besides, there have not been many stories told about this place which is so fantastically rich in so many ways,” he concludes.