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Life in the Woods

It is pitch dark outside as I sit and write this. The tree-line has dissolved into the empty space above, with only a few stars gleaming down upon the darkened earth. I am sitting by an incandescent light I switched on at the click of a button, and I plugged in my computer, turned on some music, and began to think.

There in this darkness that has set in at six o’clock in the evening is a village devoid of all that I possess right now. This village probably lies within a hundred kilometers around me, is devoid of electricity, is devoid of any form of artificial light save for the kerosene lamps hung from corrugated ceilings. This village is older than you and I, and dates back to the bygone era of our forefathers. Its houses have been surrounded by woods for eons, and the darkness that falls on this village tonight is no different from the one that engulfed it last year on this day.
Sharad Purnima is celebrated on a full moon, also called Harvest Moon, and marks the beginning of the harvest season
Every morning since the harvest moon hung low in the sky, men, women, and children alike have been hacking the damp spikelets of rice, maize and corn under the shadow of the forests, gathering them in heaps and waiting for the winter sun to dry them.
Shepherds herd cattle from every house in early morning hours, and take them to rich grazing grounds in forests
Every morning for the past many decades, they watch their cattle join the herd on their way to graze in the woods, with the shepherd leading the way.
Wood is still the primary source of fuel in most villages
This photograph was shot by a friend with due permission from another friend to whom this beautiful house belongs
Every morning for the past many centuries, they have been using wood collected from forests, which is the most efficient fuel-wood for boiling water, cooking, and for a hot cup of tea by the fireside.
Smoke rising from perforated roofs during early morning hours is a common sight
Every morning a cloud of smoke rises from their houses – like sprits from a long forgotten realm – gently settling upon the thatched roofs, slowly disappearing into the forests as sunlight warms the earth.
A workshop with wooden structures used in building bullock-carts
Wheel-trails of bullock-carts still dominate the village roads, and people chew on Neem stick toothbrushes.

Come to think of it, everything in this village has fallen into place, like a jigsaw puzzle – every human,  tree, and animal, a small piece in the larger canvass of the five elements of Earth – fitting in perfectly. Everything is in-tune with the rhythm of nature, pulsating and proliferating slowly and steadily like blood gushing through veins – veins of its human residents, and of the trees and the animals they share this ground with – intermingled into one superorganism.

The village has a school brimming with students – girls in their braided ponytails and boys in their summer-bleached attire drown the surrounding sounds of birds and bees in a chorus of English alphabets and numbers and nursery rhymes every morning. They are the future of this village: torchbearers of the dreams of their parents and their forefathers.
A curious calf that will soon be old enough to venture into the outer world and graze alongside its mother
Some kids are “left behind”, as some people put it; they have been out since before the sunrise with their cattle, herding them in search of richer feeding grounds. They do not spend their time remembering numbers and alphabets. They do not know how to read and to write.

But they know how to see and to hear, and to smell and to feel. They know the life in the woods.
They have seen a tiger take away their cow, and a leopard injure a calf. And they have seen a deer give birth to a fawn, and a python eating a full-grown stag.

They have heard the call of the mother tigress, and they have heard her roar. They know the chuckle of Langurs and the barks of Chital when a tiger is near. And they know the sound of the wind, when it sings of rain, and when it does not.

They know the smell of the earth, the smell of seasons, and the smell of the unseen smoke that smites the forests in summer.

They know things that are not taught in schools – things that will never be taught through books.
A nylon fishing net, bamboo fish-traps, and a traditional umbrella, Phumdi, made up of bamboo and Bauhinia leaves
They know how to hunt, to fish, to cook and to enjoy a meal under a towering canopy of trees.

They are the last remaining children of the earth living a life in the woods that is rapidly changing. And their knowledge of the life in the woods is rapidly eroding.
A farmer examines his crop prior to harvest season; threat of crop raiding from wild animals is common in forest villages
The village elders have always been wary of wild animals threatening to devour a hard work’s pay; rather a hard year’s pay, as they encroach upon agricultural fields and prey upon anything edible: elephants, gaurs, deer, and boars. They have seen people lose their lives while protecting their crop.
A Wild Boar rummages through leaf litter
Wild Boars are one of the commonest crop raiders and a farmer's worst nightmare.
There are people in this village that know people who were killed by tigers, leopards, and bears; and people who lived to tell the tale.

And there are shamans and healers, owl-hunters and magicians who pretend to maintain the pace of fortune and fate and life and death.
Sunrise over one of the many woodlands of India that man and wildlife inhabit
What I pictured this evening is very much a reality even today. And I am proud of it if I completely exclude the socio-economic complexities of India’s countryside, and as long as the people choose to live in the woods by their own decision.
Traditional varieties of corn are still commonly grown and used to prepare soup (paej) and roti for winter
With all the natural and social calamities that have denied this village of chances of prosperity, all that is needed is a tiny spark of unhappiness to truly mar the quintessential harmony that exists here. And that unhappiness, if it ever comes, will come from the materialistic world that lies beyond the forest.

In my little time in the cities, and with the littlest experience I’ve had in the woods, I have come to realize that the doom faced by our environment comes not from villages dependent wholly upon forests, but from the materialistic society ignorantly hacking at the sociological and ecological integrity of our forests.
A temple looking over mist-filled groves in one of Central India's prime habitats shared by man and tiger
Our countryside and the life in the woods are on the brink of extinction; it is as vulnerable as the tiger. The very problems that push tigers to extinction are pushing an entire culture towards obliteration.

Environmental degradation, climate change, global warming, and the total and hapless collapse of natural ecosystems, will arise not from the forest-dependent communities, but from cities, and with it will come the socio-economic tensions of famine and flood, wars and mass migration. And all of this will either hit the villages I talked about the hardest, or they will likely become the most resilient models that urban planners have been searching for all this while in the name of sustainable development.

Man and his doings are as natural as they can be, for we do not use godly powers to shape the earth but harvest what power is already available to us. What man is doing is using more and more of it. We are advancing too rapidly over that which already exists. Escaping from these grappling arms of urbanization today is inevitable – they will reach even the remotest corners of the world sooner or later, and they will pursue the indigenous peoples who want to stay away from them, as they have done so in the past and which Ishmael has recounted.

In Thoreau’s words (Walden or Life in the Woods, Chapter 8: The Village, pp. 146);

“But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society. It is true, I might have restricted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run “amok” against society; but I preferred that society should run “amok” against me, it being the desperate party.”
A modern road - a symbol of modernization - weaves through a seemingly endless stretch of forests...
... finding its way to another city waiting to expand.
Is there really a way out from the grappling arms of urbanization? Is urbanization, hiding in the guise of sustainable development, viable? How much is enough to sustain? How much more must we develop? Nobody has answers to these questions. Sustainable development does not draw a line; it only keeps the flicker of hope alive for a little longer. A hundred, or maybe even a mere fifty years from now the talks – the very hope – of sustainability would be gone…

What then?

The Last Wave by Pankaj Sekhsaria: a review

I have always wanted to visit the Andaman Islands, and I had written to Pankaj nearly half a decade ago about it, but I didn’t intend to visit the islands as a tourist, especially after the tsunami. The trip however never materialized and years later, today, Pankaj helped me visit the great islands through “The Last Wave”, and I learnt much more about the island than I would have if I were to visit as a mere tourist. Simply put, the book is relevant to those who have been to the islands as it is to those who wish to.
Cover of The Last Wave: An Island Novel by Pankaj Sekhseria,
Published by Harper Collins
The Last Wave’s cover is outlaid on a mellow shade of green, with sights and signs distinctive of the Andamans: a Jarawa standing on what appears to be the Andaman Trunk Road, a fish and a dinghy signifying the basic livelihood of the island, a mugger basking near the base of the book, and between the title and the name of the author rests the flower of Papilionanthe teres. The back-cover, in continuation of the front, shows a Leatherback turtle along the sea, a Narcondam Hornbill that appears to be contemplating its future, and what appears to be the aftermath of the tsunami silhouetted against the colourful design of the book: a reminder of the third deadliest earthquake of the world in the last hundred years.

At 290-pages long, the book is divided into three parts and sub-divided into several chapters each containing a wealth of knowledge skillfully woven with a story of people exploring and discovering the social and ecological aspects of the islands. It starts with a very revealing excerpt from “A History of our Relations with the Andamanese” written in 1899. Every chapter has snippets and facts about the islands, whether in reference to the location, the people of the islands, or its wild denizens – from mangroves and its inhabitants to the virgin tropical forests. It takes one on a trip around the islands led by its main protagonists, with a map guiding the reader of the whereabouts of the stories of the novel. Set in the backdrop of real events, the book slowly and interestingly binds you to its tales – both factual and fictitious, that fiction seems indeed real. Its stories build up one upon another – like brick upon a brick – hinting only subtly where it is all headed – where you know the story ultimately leads to – that singularity event by which the book is aptly titled.

The novel aims to put several pieces together, with the focus on the “first-borns” of the islands – the Jarawas, and the unwarranted, unorthodox notion of the mainlanders towards this mystical community of India. It raises issues of utmost urgency in the real world, and it seeks to answer questions that shall aid in the attitude-shift towards the visitors to the islands as well as those who have simply heard about these people. Although counted in the “fiction” genre, this novel is a startling wake-up call to the real world towards the plight of the Jarawas and other vulnerable communities of the islands.

Pankaj crafts his ideas by showing us both the sides of the coins. The harsh facts lie on the ugly side, and the beautiful and seemingly mystical facts which lie on the beautiful side of the same coin. In this novel, the ugly side reigns over the beautiful – but this is a necessary evil to come to appreciate the beauty of the other side of the coin which lies in its rarity and vulnerability. From the history of the first-borns of the islands, to the local-born and immigrants, to the coming and going of the Japanese and the British, to the changing landscapes of the islands, this book raises issues that are reflective of the mainland India; but in context of this rather isolated ecosystem, it is more expressive and disconcerting. For those with a greater curiosity, the author has also given a list of references at the end of the book.

Beside the vast information about the islands, the personal touch and a sense of belonging comes from the two protagonists of the novel – Harish and Seema, and the other critical characters of the novel. They are the fictitious embodiment of all of us in some way, and this breathes fresh air into what could have otherwise been a factual report of the islands not many would be interested in. And herein lies the best asset of this book: this book is for those who want to be initiated into the web-of-life of the islands: and that must be all of us. Today, the world needs this book; the world needs to know the history, the present, and the out-of-sight yet straight-and-narrow future akin to the Andaman Trunk Road, of our long-lost neighbours of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

A must-read for backpackers, wishful-travelers, as well as budding explorers to the Andamans. 

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You can visit the author's Facebook page: The Last Wave - An Island Novel
You can buy the book on Amazon and Flipkart.