The Sea Elephants

Image of The Sea Elephants: A Novel
Release Date: 
July 11, 2023
Flatiron Books
Reviewed by: 

“it is the combination of the Western novel and Eastern fable that allows the reader to become totally enthralled. . . . ravishingly written.”

There’s a Dickensian quality to Shastri Akella’s saga of the experiences of his hero, Shagun, from childhood to maturity, from self-hatred to the full acceptance of another’s love. Like Charles Dickens’ young heroes, Shagun moves through confrontations with a series of colorful, sometimes dangerous, characters, and through a narrative driven at times by coincidences that stretch the reader’s credibility. Akella’s The Sea Elephants is also heavily influenced by Hindu mythology. Indeed, it is the combination of the Western novel and Eastern fable that allows the reader to become totally enthralled.

The story of the sea elephants is the base line in Akella’s saga. After the gods took the first ancestor of the sea elephants, the beasts have felt great loss. Their whale songs have limited notes. The only thing that compensates for their loss is the presence of a human child. So every once in a while, the patriarch steals a child who remains with the elephants until it dies and reincarnates, after which another child must be taken. The child’s life under the waves is a happy one.

Set in the 1980s and 1990s, Shagun’s story begins with the drowning of his two twin sisters, a tragedy for which he is riddled with guilt, though he is at best indirectly responsible (he dared the twins to get into a frail boat that was washed out to sea). Up to that time, the boy lived happily with his mother and sisters. He never heard a harsh male voice telling him how to be masculine until his father returns home from London and begins policing the boy’s masculinity. To get away, Shagun gets a scholarship to a boarding school that has its own harsh code of gender-appropriate behavior. There the boy realizes that he is attracted to other boys. When Shagun’s father discovers his son’s homosexuality, he arranges for him to be taken to a place where he will be converted to heterosexuality.

Shagun runs away and joins a small touring theater troupe. He finds freedom and fulfillment in enacting male and female roles in the dramatizations of Hindu myths that he loved as a child. When the troupe accepts the offer of teaching at a college in Cochi for nine months, Shagun meets the love of his life, Marc, an American Jew whose family has moved to this city, which was once the center of an Indian Jewish community with its own language, Judeo-Malayalam. Marc and Shagun fall in love, but guilt over his sister’s death and shame make it impossible for Shagun to fully reciprocate Marc’s sexual desire. Only a crisis allows a sexual relationship to develop.

The Sea Elephants is a coming-of-age novel, enriched by Hindu mythology. Shagun can only be healed by resolving his feelings toward his father. That healing comes, ironically, in a prison building the father designed and built, now the site for a vicious regime of conversion of homosexuals. He also needs to come to terms with his complex gender identification. Shagun is happy offstage in traditional men’s clothing, but at his best onstage in female clothing. His is throughout his life, self-conscious about his “man breasts,” but in his relationship with Marc, sees himself as the devoted female. Indeed, the novel is a celebration of the complexity of gender.

Akella has filled the novel with a large cast of colorful, complex supporting characters, from Shagun’s parents to his fellow actors to the social circle he and Marc develop. Each character manifests Akella’s belief in the complexity and contradictory nature of human personalities. As in Dickens, there are some irredeemably bad characters, particularly Vikram, who runs the brutal conversion center, the policer of appropriate masculinity.

Many episodes exist on a metaphoric plane. At boarding school, Shagun liked to hide inside a giant cauldron. His only kindred spirit was a boy who would only speak to him unseen on the other side of the iron vessel. Both boys are fettered by their self-hatred. The cauldron is a beautiful image if self-imprisonment and separation.

Akella came to his calling as a writer in his thirties when he left the world of IT to get an MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in comparative literature. This is his first novel. The Sea Elephants is ravishingly written. The descriptions of beautiful Indian locations like Cochi are vivid as are the descriptions of characters.

The Sea Elephants is a lavish first novel. It is a must for lovers of queer fiction and lovers of India.