The Sea Elephants

  • Review
By – July 10, 2023

In Shas­tri Akella’s vibrant debut nov­el, The Sea Ele­phants, six­teen-year-old Sha­gun Math­ur leaves his home on the Bay of Ben­gal for board­ing school. Despite the move, Sha­gun can­not leave behind the mem­o­ry of his twin sis­ters, whose trag­ic deaths he wit­nessed first­hand; nor can he escape the dom­i­neer­ing specter of his abu­sive father, Pita-Jee. Sha­gun will nev­er be the man Pita-Jee wants him to be: a straight male made in the image of Hanu­man, known in Hin­du epics for his strength and masculinity. 

At board­ing school — and at each sub­se­quent phase of this queered Bil­dungsro­man — Sha­gun is met with a gaunt­let of antag­o­nists and abusers. Their vio­lent, homo­pho­bic instincts per­pet­u­ate the rigid social order of late twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry India. To be vir­tu­ous,” Pita-Jee reminds his son, is the choice you make when your body tempts you to be oth­er­wise.” Yet only in a cul­ture that ostra­cizes — and crim­i­nal­izes — queer­ness are Shagun’s feel­ings con­sid­ered temp­ta­tions, and the repres­sion of gen­uine love and desire deemed vir­tu­ous. Hor­ri­fy­ing as they are, Shagun’s encoun­ters with cru­el­ty incite a peri­od of self-learn­ing that per­sists through­out the nov­el. Often involv­ing the body, these moments reveal how trau­ma influ­ences sex­u­al­i­ty; how phys­i­cal trust is built and bro­ken, and how the body can, for bet­ter or worse, learn and unlearn. 

As threat and ulti­ma­tum raise the stakes of Shagun’s future, he finds sup­port in a tight-knit trav­el­ing street-the­ater troupe that per­forms Hin­du myths. Such myths become inte­gral to the nov­el itself — includ­ing its title — and demon­strate Akella’s lyric range. But when the trav­el­ing the­ater group is moored, Sha­gun meets Marc, a Jew­ish pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and the bil­dungsro­man tran­si­tions deft­ly into a polit­i­cal love sto­ry. Marc’s fam­i­ly is from Jew Town, a his­toric enclave in South­west India and a haven for Jews across mul­ti­ple waves of dias­po­ra. Jew Town serves as a well-timed reminder that sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der are not the only aspects of iden­ti­ty for which peo­ple are per­se­cut­ed. Judeo-Malay­alam, the fused lan­guage of Marc’s child­hood, rep­re­sents how lan­guage itself can help us make room for hybrid­i­ty and indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, even in cul­tures dom­i­nat­ed by strict bina­ries and rigid social hierarchy. 

The sto­ry doesn’t end there. In fact, some of its most rad­i­cal twists and turns take place in lat­er chap­ters — and the cli­mac­tic final events act as con­flu­ences of the novel’s char­ac­ters and themes, not depar­tures. Through­out the book, Sha­gun con­tin­ues to find empa­thet­ic friends who pro­tect him and help him grow. This is one of Akella’s great achieve­ments: he depicts the vital, life-giv­ing force of gen­uine allies. These vibrant sec­ondary char­ac­ters are the novel’s plot-movers, fate-hold­ers, ques­tion-askers, and humor-providers. Only with their love and sup­port does Sha­gun stand a chance at resist­ing hege­mon­ic social struc­tures and break­ing down the inter­nal­ized bar­ri­ers root­ed deep with­in him.

Nathan Blum is an MFA Can­di­date in Fic­tion at Van­der­bilt Uni­ver­si­ty and edi­tor-in-chief at Nashville Review. His writ­ing appears or is forth­com­ing in Westch­ester Review, Cagibi, and Ploughshares.

Discussion Questions