Thursday, July 10, 2014
Random thoughts on reading 'The Last Wave: An Island Story' by Pankaj Sekhsaria
To write the story of a people who are as incommunicable and incomprehensible as the Jarawas—is well nigh impossible. Whatever we try to think about them, write about them, or imagine about them, in whatever way we interpret their behaviour, we do so from our point of view—for we are not privy to theirs.
At the book launch, after the conversation between Pankaj Sekhsaria and Usha Raman, someone from the audience observed that the Jarawas did not come out well in the novel. I thought, ‘now they’re telling Pankaj how he should have written his book!’ But that gentleman was spot on. How could they have? Tanumei and his ilk, who had the ‘misfortune’ of being forced into contact with us, first due to medical reasons, and then due to the sinister pull of a certain type of Pavlovian conditioning, were jostled into that circle of human livelihood that harks more of the rough and tumble of the working class, than into the invariably presumptuous cerebrations of the staid, educated, more ‘cultured’, if you will, types. And a rough stone quickly gathers up the common morass, unlike the patina of one that’s seen more of life. All we are able to give the ill-fated Jarawas that brush against us are a mouthful of curses, the naked leer, and an ultimately debilitating addiction for tobacco and hooch. We also pacify them with bananas and coconuts. Their brief interactions with our types either draw out the cuss words, to the gallery’s delight, or the sullen, sometimes mildly threatening demeanour of the ‘untamed savage’, demanding intoxicants or victuals. So, they do come across in bad light—but is that not because we apply our judgmental standards to their responses to our own behaviour towards them? And if we applaud, or acquiesce, then are we not the guilty party?
It crossed my mind, that evening that given our abilities of comprehension and empathy, the Jarawa is perhaps akin to what we pompously call ‘wildlife’. We, they and us, exist in different realms, connected to each other only by the physicality of our planet. If we cannot understand our fellow denizens, can we expect them to understand us, or our evidently destructive ways? If we know that we need to save the planet from ourselves, are we willing to extend that knowledge to embrace all life within its encircling enlightenment? Since the inception of our natural science curricula, and the resulting innumerable studies of life forms, has one cheetal admired our firelines? Has one cheetah brought a blackbuck to our picnic? And if they did, do we have the wherewithal to comprehend? All our studies seem to work towards ensuring our own continuum. Is not the ultimate aim of conservation biology a safer world for us? To manage habitats and wildlife we cull populations under controlled conditions, yet our own explodes exponentially. Are we even remotely concerned for the well being of other life forms, if it were to be at the expense of ours?
Pankaj observed that the local borns feel they too have a right to the island’s natural riches, even though most of those treasures only remain in the out of bounds Jarawa Reserve, that people nurse great angst against this sacrosanct area, which supports a paltry Jarawa population. How and when will we educate ourselves to the fact that the entire world supplies us, our greed, and yet we covet the slip of land that must barely fulfil the Jarawa’s need!
So, in trying to understand the Jarawa, the protagonists endeavor to comprehend those who live closest to the ‘uncivilised’. Perhaps motes of Jarawa psychology, Jarawa civility, Jarawa dignity will waft into their constantly searching empathies. Physical contact with the Jarawas is electrifying but frustratingly incomprehensible. Would comprehending them save them, save their way of life, or will it civilise them, corrupt them to ours? Will we, after learning how they survive in those humid, forbidding forests, strive to re-afforest our own lands and adopt their ‘liberated’ lifestyle? Or will we patent the chemical they use to intoxicate the honeybee and name a multi-million dollar conglomerate built upon that fortune, Jarawa Inc., immortalising forever the great Jarawa for their unparalleled contribution to the advancement of human civilisation?
Despair and tragedy appear and disappear. Hope springs forth to carry the day. One person is all that’s required to make a difference. So we like to believe. But we will remain fools, being fooled all the time, unless all of us become that person.
8 July 2014