Bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is the island of Tahiti.
When European ` discoverers’ reached this island in the heart of Pacific wilderness in the eighteenth century (Tahiti was sighted by Europeans in the sixteenth or seventeenth century), there were men and women already there. How did the first people reach Tahiti? Science deems Africa’s Great Rift Valley as the evolutionary ground of our species. Our ancestors are said to have walked out from Africa. In that case, humanity’s first sea-crossing may have been the Red Sea, from near the Horn of Africa to West Asia. Those days, the water level in the Red Sea was low. Journeying on, humankind would reach the edge of East and South East Asia. Water levels were low here too, exposing that much more land (now reverted to below water) and rendering distances by sea, so much less. Slowly our ancestors navigated across the nearby seas all the way to Australia. Measured against the impatience of our times, this journey out of Africa, took a long time to be completed. Human settlement of Tahiti though seems to have been a later day affair.
If you check the map, Tahiti would appear as a dot in an ocean of blue.
According to Wikipedia, the first people on Tahiti hailed back to early residents of South East Asia. They arrived through an emigration in stages over the years, reaching Tahiti around 200BC on outrigger canoes. These are canoes having one or more lateral support floats fitted to one side of the main hull or both sides. They are paddled or sailed. Outrigger canoes are a part of the maritime heritage of Polynesia and South East Asia, having played a major role in the settlement of far flung islands and transport in general. Interestingly, Wikipedia also says that it was an emigration on outrigger canoes sailing west from South East Asia that brought human settlers to Madagascar over 350BC-550AD. That’s a long, long time since humans crossed the Red Sea eastward from mainland Africa which lay just across the Mozambique Channel from Madagascar. Emigration from mainland Africa to Madagascar followed this initial settlement. On the map, the emigration from Borneo to Madagascar would appear a crossing of the Indian Ocean – on outrigger canoes!
These early voyagers had no Wikipedia to tell them of Tahiti and Madagascar; no GPS to navigate accurately, no infallible yachts or ships as we do at present. Once gone, did they know how to get back to that thing called home, which rules, haunts and shapes us in this age of identity by settled life? Or was it all about reaching new land for new life? Take what I wrote with a pinch of salt – and the genuinely curious, please, I encourage you to read and research yourself – for my intention is not to teach you flawless history, anthropology and geography. My intention is merely to make you think. A slow and patient (not fast and impatient) gaze at the planet and its cultures would tell you that people tackled fantastic challenges long before us. Historians and archaeologists may sift through traces of human existence to give you proof of the world’s earliest sailors, the oldest boat etc. But it doesn’t tell us everything about the adventurers of yore, for quite likely, more have disappeared without trace than the few whose names survive thanks to some trace. What lives on is their legacy. It survives in humankind’s continued affair with the sea and the shape of boats, still traceable to the wisdom of ancient voyages.
Land was once as awesome as the sea. Today, land lay known and exploited. Its great adventures have largely reduced to the stuff of commercial expeditions, sponsored thrills and people competing to prove, “ I can also do it’’ or “ I can do better.’’ Out in the blue and deep below it, for no better reason than that fewer people court that vastness, so much bigger than land – a sense of self and adventure in their original tenor probably exists. During the 1968 race, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, short of money, sailed out in the ` Suhaili.’ Far out in the Atlantic, she started taking in water. He had to fix the problem, narrowed down to an issue of caulking, by carrying out repairs from under the water. For this, he had to dive into the sea and be below the boat, repairing it while the vessel slowly sailed on. Most sailors worry if their boat would drift away leaving them behind. Sir Robin was in the habit of enjoying a daily swim, diving off the bowspirit, swimming as the boat floated past and eventually helping himself back aboard using a rope trailed from its stern. Shift context and sample this from an evening, late October 2013. Lights dimmed at Mumbai’s Sterling theatre and a film commenced that was weirdly silent for the visual spectacle, which was its opening frame. For the next 90 minutes it kept the audience spell bound with deft use of aural and visual technologies and a continuous dramatic interplay of, sound and silence, movement and stillness. Befitting the medium in which the story was set, we rotated, spun and revolved in a vastness brought alive so, for the first time on big screen. As I write this, Alfonso Cuaron’s much acclaimed movie `Gravity,’ is still running in Mumbai theatres. On Earth, only the sea comes close to space in terms of distances, depth, 360 degree-expanse, the sense of being afloat and the complexities of survival in a medium that isn’t as much man’s home as terra firma is. The sea is the world’s great wilderness, till space takes over. Already you can see the similarities: `ship,’ `vessel,’ `craft,’ the relation between person and ship, the endurance required for long stints aboard – the words and ideas are common to both fields noticeable for their power to make the human being feel small.
Sagar Parikrama impressed me for the sheer scale of the experience it put the two naval officers through. It also impressed as subject ranging from the sea’s spread on the planet to its human history. Seventy per cent of the planet; deep enough to sink the highest mountains and home to fantastic natural forces, not to mention experiencing it at the pace of sail. Despite 21st century, the story still felt like revisiting books from the exploratory phase of land. Early Everest expeditions had to tackle the nuts and bolts – explore an approach to the peak, study the effects of altitude on the human being, fashion oxygen cylinders, design appropriate clothing etc – not much different from Commander Dilip Donde commencing expedition work from scratch, his interaction with Sir Robin and of course, Aquarius Fibreglass building the Mhadei in Goa. When it came to Lt Commander Abhilash Tomy, the challenges were likely more internal to self, for the defining difference had moved to nonstop circumnavigation. In all this work from researching route to boat and self, much was already known and there were templates for everything. But the approach was classical – as Vice Admiral Awati wanted it to be.
From a more short term, practical angle, nothing can be more effectively metaphorical of the relation between us and India than a boat at sea. The reason the Mhadei mattered so much for Sagar Parikrama, is because it was the vessel that would take a human being around the planet and bring the person back, safely. That’s why Ratnakar Dandekar’s role was pivotal. Like all sailors and particularly solo sailors, Commander Dilip Donde and Lt Commander Abhilash Tomy, during their voyages, devoted attention to the needs and requirements of the boat. The Mhadei was all that stood between them and the deep. If they maintained the Mhadei well, their chances of sailing safely were that much stronger.
Isn’t that true of a boat called India, too?
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Abridged versions of the main article comprising parts one, two and three of this series, and abstracts from it, were published in The Hindu newspaper, The Hindu Business Line newspaper and Man’s World [MW] magazine.)