‘If they’re kept entertained,’ Shagun figures, ‘they won’t notice what else is wrong with me.’

Picture an ice tray. Now imagine someone emptying it out – at first, slowly, twisting it, flexing the ends in opposite directions, plucking out the ice, one cube after the other. Then, suddenly, you see the tray being twisted and tautened harder, being bashed against the floor, the ice being crushed into pieces. The beaten fragments are scooped out and the tray, viciously hollowed.

Keep watching, though. In a while, you will see the pockets of the ice tray fill up again, slowly and in its own time, as water is poured into it. You will watch, patiently, the water rise to the rim, almost spilling over. You will watch with joy as something hollowed out becomes full again. Reading about Shagun Mathur, the protagonist of Shastri Akella’s debut novel The Sea Elephants, gave me this joy.

Out of sight

Set in the period between 1989 and 1997, the novel charts the story of a young boy from Bengal in his own voice, earnest and heavy in exposition. Shagun is a boy who, much to the dismay of his father, Pita-jee, never grows into a “man”. His younger twin sisters – whom he lovingly calls Milk and Mud – drown in the Bay of Bengal when he is 16. From this point on, he carries on his shoulders both the guilt of being a careless guardian and the bittersweet echoes of his dead sisters wherever he goes.

Shagun’s mother, though sympathetic to him, dutifully takes her place under Pita-jee’s heel. “There are things only a father can tell a son,” she tells Shagun. When he asks her, “What things?” she looks at his chest, shakes her head, and leaves. Only later, when Shagun goes to boarding school and notices the flat-chested boys around him, does the truth of his atypical anatomy dawn on him for the first time.

The boys sneer and grab at his “titties”; they forcefully insist on a “sneak peek” while calling him a “weirdo” and a “sick bastard.” It’s a sinking feeling for Shagun to be ruthlessly made aware of his own body, but he finds his way around it. To put his man-breasts out of sight, he ties a belt around his chest. And to put himself out of sight, he joins a theatre troupe and throws himself among costumes.

Both Akella’s and Shagun’s loyalties in the novel lie here: with the myths. When Akella moved away from his own family in desperation to Delhi and visited Hrishikesh one day, he got to watch a street theatre group perform. They enacted the tale of Chitrangada, a possibly transgender character from The Mahabharata. Akella was so moved by the intimate spectator-performer relationship that, perhaps in the hope of prolonging it, he asked them if he could join them on their journey. As for Shagun, his own first encounter with myths was his mother reading out stories from The Dravidian Book of Seas and Stargazing, Volume 1. The myth of the sea elephants, a tale of intergenerational trauma, stuck with him forever.

‘Once upon a time, the gods took away the first sea elephant . . . The trauma of that original separation haunts every sea elephant thereafter . . . Only the soul of a drowned child makes their suffering manageable. So their patriarch comes ashore every so often, steals a child, and brings it back with him.’

Akella joined the troupe as escape from his parents’ relentless pressure for marriage. Shagun, on the other hand, turns to the troupe to escape the Hanuman Male Fixing Centre. When Pita-jee hears about Shagun’s relationship with a senior in school – in fact, a non-consensual one for Shagun – he sends someone to enrol him into a 45-day conversion programme for homosexual men. This time, the truth of his unalike identity dawns on him for the first time: “I didn’t know I was an illegal person.” So he seeks refuge in theatre. The people in the troupe – Nandi, Rooh, and Saaya – become his guardian angels. When asked what he wants to do for his first performance, Shagun emphatically replies, “A sea elephant myth, of course.”

A special insider

To read Shagun is to enter his mind. In knowing what exactly he keeps tucked away and hidden from others – and there’s so much of it – you, the reader, feel like a special insider, a VIP. It is perhaps this familial proximity with Shagun – sibling-like, almost – that ensures you don’t realise that he’s growing older. You know, how people you live with often fail to register the changes in your facial structure or the few inches that you’ve grown, while visiting relatives, by virtue of distance, catch them at once. Something similar happens here. Halfway through the book, when Shagun is in fact well past his teenage years, it hits me, Oh! I’m still thinking of him as a young boy of 16!

It’s not a result of a poorly managed transition on Akella’s part. It is, instead, inevitable because Shagun never completely grows out of certain things from his early years – there are memories that play on endless repeat inside his head.

The guilty memory of Milk and Mud, for example, looms large in Shagun’s head. Despite their mention in every other chapter, their renderings are never ripe enough to not be caricatures. But even as you know little of what their presence was like, Akella makes certain that their absence hits home.

Similarly, the sexual harassment in boarding school distorts the way Shagun wants men to desire his body, and, later, breeds problems of intimacy with his partner. So it hits you, as it must, that even though Shagun is getting on in years, the past has a strong and galling pull on him.

One of the most compelling moments in the novel is when Shagun’s Jewish boyfriend, Marc, recounts to him his family’s migration story to Jew Town in Kerala. Both his mother’s and father’s parents emigrated from Austria to the United States after the first Nazi concentration camp was opened in 1933. His father, a journalist, hears about Jew Town on a college trip to Israel. He decides to write about it, and finds another journalist – Marc’s mother, as it turns out – telling the same story. They fall in love and marry.

About Jews finding refuge in India, Marc says, “Over time, escape routes for my people became fewer and harder to find.” What deeply strikes Shagun is the phrase “my people.” He stays with it. The desire for solidarity comes through as he longingly tastes the two words, “my people”, and fleshes them out over his tongue:

‘In the days to come I’d recall the way he said “my people,” his voice soaring, as if stepping forward to greet them – lives that had not intersected with his, even as their stories, passed down to Marc’s parents and to Marc, cast a shadow on his face.’

In The Sea Elephants, Shagun worries about not being able to ever inhabit his own mind and body fully. But the people who become a part of his life – his troup-mates, Marc, Marc’s friends who become his friends, his mother who eventually comes along – girdle him with patience and love as he slowly comes into his own. “I can be whoever I want to be,” declares Chitrangada, the last costume Shagun puts on in the novel.

The Sea Elephants, Shastri Akella, Penguin India.