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Excerpt | The Last Wave

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-06-2014 Pankaj Sheksaria

SK drove for a short while and finally pulled up in a small clearing where the motorable road reached its end. There were two small paths that led into the forest from here, one straight ahead and another to the left of where they stood.

‘What you see before you,’ SK said, pointing ahead, ‘is among the last of the ancient rainforests that still remain here, a mysterious unordered world that will soon be no more.’

Harish was as at a complete loss for words and the two men stood silently, surveying the mighty forest before them. Suddenly, a huge thud echoed loud and clear, catching Harish by surprise.

‘That,’ explained SK, ‘is the Forest Department axe at work.’

Trees here were still being cut the old fashioned way. Hard human labour putting iron to timber, knocking it off bit by bit.

‘There,’ SK pointed into the forest ahead, ‘can you see the guy?’

‘Which guy?’ Harish scanned carefully with his eyes. ‘I can’t see any...Oh! There? Yes, there. I can see him.’

Barely visible in the shadow of that great forest, dwarfed by the huge tree he was knocking at, there he was—a mouse of a man nibbling away at a giant rainforest. It was a formidable sight: a tree that went more than a hundred feet into the heavens, buttresses so thick and huge at the base that a human being could build a small dwelling within them.

And the man with the axe? There were two, perched about twenty feet up the tree trunk on a makeshift scaffolding, just above the point where the buttresses merged into the straight, ashen trunk.

Harish could just about make out as the arm and the axe came around from behind the man’s back, traversing nearly hundred degrees of movement in complete silence.

‘Thud.’ The axe hit the wood and the forest echoed loudly.

The axe came back. ‘Thud.’ ‘Thud.’ ‘Thud.’ It absorbed every other sound that might have been heard.

Harish’s eyes had slowly adjusted to the low level of light and he could now see a huge V-shaped cleavage, gnawed into the trunk of the tree—a fresh, angry wound that would soon consume its victim.

‘It’s almost done,’ SK said.

The two men had now disappeared around the curvature of tree, away from the V they had just created. It was a delicate operation. The V had to be just the right size or the tree would collapse before the little mice had time to get to safety. Too little, and it would remain standing. The difference was a fine one and only those with

experience knew when it was just right.

The men quickly scrambled down the scaffolding and scurried towards the visitors. They waved their hands to SK as they came up to him. They turned around, panting and sweating profusely, now waiting for the final downfall, for the tree to start tripping over the wound they had just inflicted. It started a little later, a mild sound that came creaking through, then crackling louder as the tree started to tilt over, then even louder. Finally, the tree snapped completely, a huge crackling sound that went on for much longer than Harish thought it would. The crown of the tree started to fall from the summit of the forest, struggling as it came down, screaming for the others to make way lest they too be destroyed. It hit its first neighbour, slid along its side, shaving clean the branches that came in the way and then knocked into a smaller adjoining tree, smashing its crown. The fall gained speed and momentum and the tree finally collapsed with a thud so powerful that the entire forest reverberated with its sound. Then the ensuing silence, for at least a couple of minutes.

Harish stood still, shocked by the power and the violence of the scene before him.

SK walked up to the tree that only a few moments ago had had the rare privilege of communion with the sky and the clouds. ‘The canopy of the rainforest,’ he began explaining to the still dazed Harish, ‘is one of the last frontiers for botanists. It’s an entire world up in the sky and canopy studies have taken off in a big way in places like Latin America and Australia. Orchids, insects, reptiles, amphibians, other plants—there is so much that is new to be found in the canopy up there. Something’s being done in our own southern Western Ghats too but there’s nothing here, not even a chance in the near future. The Andamans have some of the finest rainforests anywhere, but jokers like me have to wait for trees to fall like this to get some idea of what is up there. I don’t really know what to do. But do you see what I brought you here for? There’s not a single PT here. This is recorded as a virgin forest even in the records of the Forest Department, and see what they are doing to it. And you know what?’ He paused for effect. ‘This is illegal!’

‘Illegal? Forest Department? How can it be?’ Harish was baffled.

‘I too was shocked when I first realised it. It is difficult to believe, but it’s illegal because this is Jarawa Reserve. We are inside the boundary of the Jarawa Reserve and this entire timber operation here is illegal. I don’t know how this can happen here, but it’s true. This time I have such evidence that nobody will be able to refute it. Nobody,’ he muttered defiantly again, mostly to himself. ‘And I’ll explain what I mean when we are back.’

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.

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