The storyteller of the islands
When Pankaj Sekhsaria first travelled to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a student, he had little idea of how enduring his engagement with the islands would turn out to be. Over the last two and a half decades, he has been an environmental activist, a journalist, researcher, photographer and author—and in each of these roles, he has tried to unravel and communicate the complex issues that define the existence of the islands, its people and environment.
“What is the meta question to be asked about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands?” asks Sekhsaria rhetorically. “Broadly speaking, any system we are part of consists of three elements—the socio-cultural-political, the ecological and the geological framework. On the islands, all these three are always in flux, and we need to find a language to articulate and account for how they influence each other. All development planning needs to take this constant change into account.”
As a member of the Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, Sekhsaria was part of the team of three non-government organizations whose petition before the Supreme Court resulted in orders for the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) in 2002. This ambitious road on the Andaman island links Port Blair in the south to Diglipur in the north. It also cuts across the reserved rainforests that are home to the reclusive Jarawa tribals, exposing both the ancient rainforest and the Jarawas to exploitation. It was a vector, both metaphorical and literal, that brought in a number of undesirable and uncontrollable influences, on the one hand, and took away valuable resources like timber on the other.
The victory in the Supreme Court remained short-lived. Some of the orders, including those for the closure of the ATR, have never been implemented by the administration. The indigenous tribes that go back over 30,000 years continue to be vulnerable to the state and to ideas of development and mainstreaming that have not had any great successful precedence, certainly not in the case of these islands.
After years of trying to influence change as an activist and journalist, Sekhsaria published a novel, The Last Wave—An Island Novel, in 2014.
“The fiction writing came from the disappointment of the activist,” shares Sekhsaria. “The question became—can the same story be told differently?
“As a journalist or activist, there is a particular form in which the story must be told. There is a limited reach. Can a different genre of writing tell the same story to the same people and make some headway?”
Sekhsaria recounts the events that led to his book. There was the failure of the administration to implement the Supreme Court order, followed by the devastation suffered after a tsunami in December 2004. Around that time, Sekhsaria was also reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, a novel set in the vulnerable archipelago of islands in the Bay of Bengal.
“It was a little like a tubelight switching on in my head. Perhaps the story of the islands can also be told in the same way. When you are involved with any work for a long time, you understand that it is multilayered. As an activist, you end up portraying certain institutions as problematic. But, in reality, things are more ambiguous. The space in the grey is where everything lies. There is no one villain.
“What fiction allows you to do is explore motivations and actions in a nuanced way. Good fiction demands that. There are certain voices that are not heard in a certain context, and I wanted to express their points of view and perspective.”
In a chapter in The Last Wave, Sekhsaria writes about the connect, or lack of it, between the ancient community that faces inevitable annihilation and those whose actions are leading up to it.
“The other original islanders, the Onge and the Great Andamanese, who had cohabited these forests with the Jarawas, had all but gone. The Jarawa were now being dragged down the same path. There was the evidence and the weight of history—the Jarawa would be pushed down the road to annihilation—that was the word David had used in their first meeting. What do the annihilated feel? That was not the question Harish wanted to ask. What does the annihilator feel? How would he, himself, feel when the Jarawa were no more? Not because he wanted them to be vanquished, but because he could do nothing about their slide into oblivion. The world he belonged to did not want to annihilate the Jarawa, but it did not seem to know better.”
Sekhsaria recounts a recent exchange with a friend from Port Blair. “Hamara wajood kya hai,” asks the friend. “What is our relevance in the larger world?”
Like all islands, this archipelago has its own allure in the imagination of India’s mainland population. Besides the attraction of its beaches, forests and sea, there is the historical connection to the freedom movement and the Cellular Jail. The islands remain a strategic outpost for the defence services.
Where do the diverse people of the islands fit within this framework? Will they continue to be on the fringes of the national consciousness, their aspirations and conflicts forever marginalized?
Over the years, says Sekhsaria, he began to question what the core conflict between various people’s interests really was. “I realized that somewhere we are dealing with a battle of ideas and ideology and knowledge and knowledge systems. There is a certain hierarchy of knowledge creation. How can we say the tribals’ knowledge is less than the scientists’? They understand differently.”
“Has there been a difference in the way the book has been received in mainland India and on the islands?” I ask Sekhsaria.
“For many of them, it’s as if the story of the islands has now been told. There are friends who say that reading this book makes many people change their perspective of their own islands. It is an amazing thing to hear and extremely humbling at the same time.
“So what the activist was not able to communicate, in a way the fiction writer could do,” says Sekhsaria. “As an activist, your positions are pretty clear. You broadly take a stand and draw a border between right and wrong. Either the road is closed or the road is open. Either something is a violation or it is not a violation. An able chronicler, on the other hand, tells you all the stories.”
Sekhsaria explains, for instance, that the ATR is a central element in the novel. The people who will be affected negatively by the closure of the road have a strong voice in the book, explaining why the road should not be closed. Why it is not fair on them.
“It makes me wonder if it is possible that we become sympathetic to the other side when we feel that our own point of view has been understood fairly?”
As Sekhsaria articulates the eternal conflict between outsiders and insiders, the push for development and the pull of conservation, the island story begins to sound like a microcosm of the wider world. Conflicting interests, a hierarchy of power that seems immovable, a rapidly deteriorating environment, and entire societies teetering on the brink of annihilation.
“Why does it happen the way it does? Is it completely unavoidable? Are we all, in some sense, prisoners of our own context? We feel that there is agency but we are also caught up in our own biases,” Sekhsaria says. “With time, you realize that as individuals we are all as compromised as anybody else is.”
After touring with his fiction and non-fiction books, Sekhsaria has also designed a travelling exhibition of photographs from the island. He experimented with printing images on a large canvas of silk fabric and suspending them, so they moved in the air as light came through the prints. These photo installations are part of The Story of Space 2017, a science-meets-art festival in Panaji, on till 19 November.
“I wanted to create another space of engagement between mainland people and the islands,” says Sekhsaria. “The same words and photographs that I had used in court petitions or journalistic articles were now available in a new form—seeking to create a different experience and reflect the idea of flux and fragility. It is the same, yet it is new.”
Just like the islands, which are also always in flux, responding simultaneously to destruction and renewal at the hands of nature.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar