The Sea Elephants: A Novel

  • By Shastri Akella
  • Flatiron Books
  • 384 pp.

A queer Indian teen escapes to the theater in this earnest coming-of-age tale.

The Sea Elephants: A Novel

The gods stole away one of the sea elephants, forever altering their family. Suddenly, their songs were sadder, their numbers weaker. In retaliation, the creatures took a human child, ensuring the youngster’s happiness until they themselves are reincarnated.

This is the myth at the core of Shastri Akella’s The Sea Elephants. We meet Shagun, the novel’s protagonist, after the drowning death of his twin sisters, lovingly referred to as Milk and Mud, in the Bay of Bengal. His father, abroad in London to earn money for the girls’ dowries, returns for the funerals and almost immediately sends Shagun away to an all-boys boarding school due to his apparent queerness.

While there, Shagun is sexually assaulted and harassed by his classmates and finds limited solace with another young boy who shares his queerness. (And sometimes, he finds solace with his abuser.) Shagun is, for all intents and purposes, alone. That is, until he runs away with a traveling theater troupe performing the Hindu myths of his childhood.

The group is, unsurprisingly, a welcoming place for a queer teen, and Shagun thrives, living to embody mortals and gods while moving among other nomads, which makes it harder for his father to find him. Eventually, Shagun meets Marc, a queer American-born photographer whose love is not enough to overcome Shagun’s lingering shame over his sexuality or the omnipresent threat of his father and a promised gay-conversion center.

Shagun navigates the conflicts in his life with colorful, dangerous choices and finds other characters who feel almost mythical themselves. Within the theater troupe, he meets Rooh, who bravely and boldly insists “you do you,” alongside Saaya, who notices that Shagun is “more in his element in female roles.”

These new friends and the queer kinship they bring allow Shagun to express his desire for domesticity with Marc, someone whom he can “keep house, wash sneakers, do the dishes, and iron clothes” for.

Guided by the author’s tender but heavy hand, The Sea Elephants achieves a satisfying if bittersweet ending. The novel feels over-rehearsed at times, the organic joy of theater left behind as mechanical and rote precision takes over, but its softness persists. The multiplicity Akella leverages, particularly through his examination of gender and sexuality, is a core strength of the book.

Ultimately, the story, true to the sea, is fluid. Both a call for freedom and a call to arms, it implores readers to consider the power of art. In the end, Akella’s debut is a successful testament to the love we have for ourselves and others, and a reminder of just how powerful that love can be.

Nick Havey is director of Institutional Research at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all fiction. His work has appeared in the Compulsive Reader, Lambda Literary, and a number of peer-reviewed journals.

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