Pankaj Sekhsaria has a long-standing association with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) as a member of the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh. He is the author most recently of ‘Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story’ (Harper Collins India 2017), a collection of his journalism based on the islands over the last two decades. His debut novel ‘The Last Wave’ (HarperCollins India, 2014) was also set in the Andaman Islands and he is also co-editor of The Jarawas Reserve Dossier for UNESCO (2010).
He is also author of ‘The State of Wildlife in Northeast India 1996-2011: News and Information from the Protected Area Update’, published by Foundation for Ecological Security.
He recently finished his PhD thesis titled ‘Enculturing Innovation – Indian engagements with nanotechnology in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS)’ from the Maastricht University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
He currently works as a Senior Project Scientist, DST-Centre for Policy Research, Dept of Humanities and Social Science at IIT- Delhi.
- when did you first realized that you want to write?
My interest in writing began, interestingly, because of writing letters. These were my early days of college and while I was not a loner, I did not have a very large circle of friends. Those were also the years I was learning about environmental issues and thinking about things that as a teenager are full of questions and have no straight forward answers. There were a couple of friends who lived in different places and we would regularly exchange hand written letters. Remember, this was the era of no email – even computers were hardly there. And I would write really long letters – running into many pages. And they would write back often saying they enjoyed reading what I wrote and the way I wrote. Those responses, I think, sowed the seeds for me and that is where I began thinking of writing more seriously. Being an author, however, was never on my list of things to become. The writing progressed then from letters to friends, to letters to newspapers, to articles and photo-features and eventually, now, to books.
2. Where did you get information for your books?
Both my recent books on the islands – ‘The Last Wave’, which is my debut novel, and ‘Islands in Flux’ which is a collection of journalism have come after nearly two decades of research, writing and photography in the islands. So, it is this body of experience, research, traveling and reading that I have drawn upon to put the two books together. In some senses, the books are a consolidation of nearly two decades of my work in the islands.
3. What do you do when you are not writing?
Research and writing is an integral part of what I do and I do end up writing quite a bit. There is a newsletter on wildlife that I edit for the environmental action group, called Kalpavriksh. I also write a monthly column on the environment for ‘The Hindu’ and besides that regularly put together articles and photo features for other publications. My research work is at the intersection of the environment and social sciences and there is a lot of writing to be done there as well. So I do end up writing a lot. To answer your question more specifically – I do read quite a bit, I like to travel too and I am also a keen photographer. My photography has in fact, been an integral part of my writing and research work.
4. How did the idea of ‘Islands in Flux’ come about? Was there a certain incident or experience that led to this narrative?
‘Islands in Flux’ is a book that brings together my journalistic and research based writing about the Andaman and Nicobar islands over the last two decades. The attempt is to bring together the wide range of experiences, issues and challenges that constitute the islands, the three main dimensions of which are the histories of the human communities here, the ecological diversity and fragility of this unique island chain and the constant geologic and tectonic activity that is very much part of life here. These are subjects I have been writing about since the mid 90s for a range of English publications in India and I realized that there is a considerably vast terrain that these articles have covered. In many contexts these writings continued to be relevant today, even as the issues they deal with are very interesting.
So, Islands in Flux, is not one narrative; the idea was precisely to show that there are multiple narratives and stories and all of them are important and relevant in different ways. And this becomes particularly important because of the specific vulnerabilities of the islands – one of the issues that was raised, for instance, during the Home Minister’s recent visit to the islands was related to compensation for land and other losses suffered by people here during the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami of December 2004. A simultaneous demand was for relaxation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms because these are coming in the way of expanding tourism in the islands. I am not sure about others, but I see very clear contradictions here and the fact that policy planning continues to ignorant of these very specific contexts and vulnerabilities of the islands. A recent proposal for the development of the islands being pursued by the Niti Aayog has proposed, among others, plans for port construction, an integrated tourism complex, construction of a trans-shipment terminal and creation of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in areas that are ecologically fragile and also legally protected in the name of the indigenous communities. The scale of what is being proposed in the islands today is unmatched, and its implications for the local people and the local ecology barely understood.
In recent years it has also been frustrating for me to see that many of these issues have been discussed in various fora including in my own writings in the past and yet none of these are seen reflected in new proposals, statements and policies being put forward by politicians, ministers, and the administration. The whole discussion has to be started from scratch – it’s like being on a treadmill for ever. And so, this was one of the most important reasons for me to put ‘Islands in Flux’ together – to kind of move on from that treadmill and force others to do the same as well.
5.What has been the biggest challenge while penning this book?
The format of the book – of putting together old writings to make them relevant for a contemporary context and reality – I think, is an interesting one. It is not a new format at all and has its limitations, but it also offers some striking possibilities. And the key question is whether I’ve managed to do it right. That would depend on how the book is received and what kinds of discussions and debates it generates. The initial responses from readers have been very encouraging and interesting. At least a couple of people have written in saying they realized on finishing the book how unaware they were of the multiple realities and challenges in the islands – that there is much more to the islands than the cellular jail, pretty beaches, and sparkling beaches that the tourism brochures show us. All of this is very much the reality in the islands, but there is much much more and conveying this is the challenge that ‘Islands in Flux’ seeks to take up.
6.Tell us about cover of your latest book and how it came from?
The book as you know is titled ‘Islands in Flux’ and the central idea for the cover was to focus on this idea of ‘change’ and ‘flux’. So what we ended up doing was to create a rather serene and calm scene with the boatman, the water and a tinge of green via the coconut. It in some senses, depicts the calm before a storm – the idea is that the calmness and the serenity is only momentary and change is just around the corner. And this has worked well, I think because of the contrast between what this scene depicts and the title where the letters that make up ‘flux’ themselves are struggling to find a balance.
7.Are you writing new book? If yes. What is it about?
There are two books that I am working on at the moment. One is an edited book that looks at wildlife in the state of Maharashtra and the other is in what is broadly called the Social Studies of Science and Technology. This is based on my recent PhD thesis that studied nano-science and technology laboratories in India to understand life inside the lab and to also understand what innovation means inside these labs and for scientists and technologists who work at the nano scale
8. What advise would you give to aspiring writers?
Writing is hard work and the more we write the better we get. Every single iteration of a piece of writing is better than its preceding version. So one should never think that what I have now cannot get better. It can and being at it all the time is very important.
The other thing I believe is useful if not important to be a good writer is to read – to read to learn and get new ideas but to read, also to see how other writes write, how they use the language, how they work with ideas…
9. How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Facebook Handle: https://www.facebook.com/pankaj.sekhsaria?ref=bookmarks
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.