The Sea Elephants
- By Ellie Eberlee
A Review of The Sea Elephants by Shastri Akella (Flatiron Books, 2023)
“Once upon a time,” reads sixteen-year-old protagonist Shagun in a book of Hindu myths at the outset of Shastri Akella’s earnest and aching debut novel, The Sea Elephants, “the gods took away the first ancestor of the sea elephants, coveting him for his exceptional beauty—tusks blue, body ivory.” Shagun goes on to learn that “the trauma of that original separation haunts every sea elephant,” so that “only the soul of a drowned child makes their suffering manageable.” The passage closes by explaining how the elephants’ “patriarch comes ashore every so often, steals a child, and brings it back with him.”
While Shagun reads about intergenerational despair in The Dravidian Book of Seas and Stargazing, Volume 1, he is not mourning the loss of one child, but two. His younger sisters, known affectionately as Mud and Milk, drowned in the Bay of Bengal some six months earlier. As their older brother and should-have-been caretaker who was hornily distracted during the Englishman-ogling game that took the girls’ lives, Shagun is devastated. He is also cowed by the jarring return of Pita-jee—the callous, deeply traditional, and colonially influenced father who, after fourteen years working construction in London, has finally come back to pay ostensible respect to his daughters’ passing.
So do readers encounter the first of many fraught male relationships which form the narrative and emotional ligature of Akella’s patriarchy-piercing bildungsroman. Caught up in compounding tides of guilt and grief, Shagun cannot forgive his father when he learns that, prior to their deaths, Mud and Milk were betrothed—as fourteen-year-old children, their dowries paid—to the twenty-nine- and thirty-year-old brothers of his cold-blooded and torturous classmate, Rusty. (For his part, Pita-jee is ashamed of a son who, for lack of a male role model growing up, pees in a squatting position.) It is the sex, though, which Shagun carries with him and grapples with well into adulthood: the grossly insensitive, unfathomably selfish sex which Pita-jee demands from Shagun’s mother immediately upon returning home, after delaying his return for half a year. Appalled, Shagun wonders: “How could a father come home six months after his daughters died, show no sign of grief, and seek instead his bodily pleasure?”
Shagun’s own introduction to intercourse in its crudest and most juvenile form comes at Magpies, the boarding school at which he plans to escape the hostile, heteronormative penumbra his father has cast over his once tolerant childhood home. At Magpies, Shagun excels academically and learns to pee standing up; there, he is also sexually assaulted by his classmates, who call him “Bitch Bags” because of his larger-than-average breasts and generally delicate, intellectual demeanor. When word reaches Pita-jee, Shagun is threatened with a forty-five-day course of conversion therapy at the Hanuman Male Fixing Center. The summer following eleventh grade, Shagun runs away with a traveling theatre troupe which enacts versions of the Hindu myths he and his sisters grew up admiring—that of the sea elephants among them.
In this way, Akella unites Shagun with the cluster of queer performers who not only help him explore his sexuality and gender identity, but raise many of the questions central to the novel: what does it mean to be a man or a woman? Can one person assume the traits conventionally associated with both masculinity and femininity? And what goes into loving a person of a different or of the same gender? If, as the Gita says, “the body is an earthly suit” and “underneath, the soul is without gender,” might love not transcend considerations of manhood and womanhood altogether?
The Sea Elephants spans eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, a period when homosexuality was illegal in India (it was only legalized recently, in 2018). Yet, out of sight of authoritarian police and beyond the strictures of deeply ingrained colonial attitudes, Shagun finds companionship and liberation. He meets fellow actors like Rooh, who insists that “you do you,” and Saaya, who observes that Shagun “seem[s] more in [his] element in female roles,” adding that there’s “Nothing wrong in dressing like a woman if that’s what you want. Offstage, I mean.” It is to these newfound friends that Shagun, once so ashamed of the bodily desires which—however indirectly—cost his sisters their lives, voices his domestic dream of “a man who comes home to [him], day after day.” To them, he admits longing for a lover whom he can “wake up with bed breakfast and pack lunch”; for whom he can “keep house, wash sneakers, do the dishes, and iron clothes.”
A possible candidate arrives in the form of Marc Singer, the Jewish American who admires Shagun’s performance one night in Chamba. Shagun and Marc strike up a relationship when the troupe is compelled to spend nine months teaching at a theater school in the area. The two men’s courtship occupies the remaining bulk of the novel: their feigned, ethnically charged pretenses of domination and submission; their world-weary yet no less pure affection for one another; Shagun’s paralyzing inability to consummate the affair.
Concentrated as it is on Shagun, the book’s narrative is brisk and forward-facing. The world Akella constructs is spare; relatively little page space is devoted to illustrating the dormitories of Magpies or the streets and classrooms in Chamba. Instead, the novelist focuses the sharp-eyed force of his prose on people as they navigate what it means to be seen and touched and cared for. This attentive examination reads as alternately gentle and bracing, honoring the simultaneously raw and exquisite intersections between physicality and pleasure; performed gender and more unconscious identity; and erotic mythmaking and simpler, straightforward love stories.
Gratifyingly, Akella resists the urge to tie up any one narrative thread too neatly. The novel recognizes that losses cannot always be recouped, and that healing from previous trauma often necessitates substantial swathes of time. Even the myths performed by Shagun’s troupe retain an element of irresolution, a sense that nothing can be solved wholly or expediently. Take, for example, the story undergirding the troupe’s final performance of the novel, from The Dravidian Book of Seas and Stargazing, Volume 2. In it, the god Indra’s blessings begin to fail, and he seeks council with the sea elephants. He acknowledges that “he cannot replace their ancestor”; still, “he offers two gifts: a direct line of communication between them, in the sea, and Iravat, up in heaven; heaven’s ambrosia to heal the deep scars of generational trauma.” In turn, “the elephant chief accepts Indra’s apology and his gifts. Two generations of sea elephants come of age before their trauma heals.”
There are evident risks surrounding much of Akella’s material. At times, the theatre troupe set-up, which allows Akella to draw smooth parallels between actual acting and conscious expressions of sexuality and gender, feels a bit too easy. Still, it is not ineffective—nor, for that matter, unwelcome, as when Shagun and his friend Su raise important questions in a seminar on the physicality of male and female characters at the acting school in Chamba:
“Why is the ‘sensitive male character’ exaggeratedly feminine?” I asked, looking at Su, encouraging her to chime in.
“You think that’s how women behave?” she said. “Have you ever seen women?”
Some students nodded. Some visibly reddened. We discussed how performing male characters with feminine gestures becomes a problem when the tics are exaggerated, reducing the complex characters to those tics. To stereotypes.
I said, “On the second of December, there’s a performance by an all-women troupe at the Chinmasta Temple. We’ll observe them. In the class after that, Team Two gets to perform and Team One gets to revise their performance.”
“One more thing,” Su said. “Why did you use the room space like that? Like, why arrange yourself from ‘most masculine’ to ‘most feminine’?”
They looked at each other. The bell rang.
Guided by Akella’s own tender, if occasionally heavy touch, The Sea Elephants thereby achieves a messy but poignant success. Perhaps the most powerful element of this success is the writer’s embrace of multiplicity—of plurality and plenitude across an interminable spectrum of sexuality and gender. Again and again, The Sea Elephants demonstrates how binaries and categories hold power only insofar as we imbue them with it; how they are constraining only up until the moment of their shattering. At the book’s core is a full-bodied and unwavering call for freedom: for a world in which any person—man or woman, straight or gay—might appear, like the skin of elephants, “a paradox: rough and smooth, tough and soft”; in which any person might, like the deity Chitranganda, “move across sexual and gender identities, fluid as wet sandalwood on a statue’s limb,” declaring “I can be anything I want to be.”
ELLIE EBERLEE holds her Master’s in English Literature from the University of Oxford and is currently undertaking her Publishing and Editorial Certification at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of Toronto, she has worked for Oxford University Press and interned with Harper’s Magazine and the New England Review. Her essays and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, the Rumpus, the Literary Review of Canada, and The Chicago Review of Books, among other venues.